Ashton visit to Iranian political activists stirs controversy

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The visit of Catherin Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, to political activists in Iran has triggered a backlash from parliament conservatives, who have prepared a list of questions for Iran’s intelligence minister.

Ashton’s trip was the first high level EU visit since 2008. Along with meeting President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ashton met with Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi and Gohar Esghi, the mother of blogger Sattar Beheshti, who was killed while in police custody in 2012.

A picture of the meeting, which took place at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, was shared widely on social media. Eshghi, in the picture above, is holding a picture of her son, Sattar.

More than 20 Iranian members of parliament signed a letter containing questions for Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to be read in an open session of parliament. Most of the questions concerned why Alavi would allow Ashton to meet with the “condemned 2009 seditionists.” The term “seditionists” is used by hard-liners to describe those who supported the 2009 post-election protests.

Most of the criticism was directed at Mohammadi’s presence. She received international recognition for her human rights work, which has resulted in constant domestic pressure and arrests. Most websites did not even mention Esghi’s name. In fact, hard-line Javan erased Esghi from the picture of the meeting (below). The title of its article read, “Meeting with the seditionists is interference in domestic affairs.”

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Fars News reported that despite claims by nuclear negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi that the nuclear negotiations are only focused on the nuclear issue, the meeting between Ashton and Mohammadi shows that the talks are the “beginning of the wave of pressure on Iran in the final nuclear deal in order to get concessions through the human rights issue.”

Kayhan‘s top story was headlined “What is Ashton’s negotiations or interference in Iran?” In Persian, the words “negotiation” and “interference” rhyme. According to Kayhan, Iranian officials said the main reason for Ashton’s visit was to discuss the nuclear issue, but that according to Ashton, it was to “focus on the human rights issue.”

Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton said that the meeting with Mohammadi and Esghi took place because of International Women’s Day.

Marzieh Afkham, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that the meeting was not official or coordinated, and that the ministry had issued a warning to the Austrian Embassy. She added, “These types of actions will increase the suspicions of the people toward the West, and do not help relations between Iran and the European Union.”

In Decemeber 2013, a European Union parliament delegation also came under fire during its Iran visit for meeting with activists Jaffar Panahi and Nasrin Sotudeh at the Greek Embassy.