A trip that members of the European Parliament are planning to take to Iran has sparked intense criticism in Europe and Israel, with critics saying the visit weakens the international effort to stop Tehran’s nuclear program and promote human rights.

Tarja Cronberg (Greens/EFA, Finland), chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iran, and the delegation’s vice-chairwoman, Cornelia Ernst (GUE/NGL, Germany), are slated to arrive in Tehran in May.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post by phone from Brussels on Thursday, British MEP Dr. Charles Tannock, a UK Conservative Party member representing the center-right European conservative and Reformists group in the parliament, termed the trip a “very bad idea” because the visit would allow Iran’s government to use “EU dialogue as a publicity stunt.”

He said his group was “firmly opposed to [the visit], and we regret this trip by Cronberg.”

Tannock, who is also a member of the foreign affairs committee in the EU parliament and is a leading MEP expert on Iran, said it was the wrong time to visit the Islamic Republic because of the “terrible human rights in the country,” adding that “women are stoned to death, homosexuals are hanged,” and Iranian Ahwazi Arabs and Bahai are facing persecution.

He warned that Iran would exploit the trip ahead of the June Iranian presidential elections. He also noted that there had been “no progress in stopping centrifuges” with respect to Iran’s sanctioned nuclear program, and that the country had one of the highest levels of executions in world.

“Acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is a serious and unacceptable threat to global security,” he said.

Gerald Steinberg, president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, told the Post on Thursday that it was “hard to imagine something more damaging than an EU parliamentary visit to Iran, in terms of the effort to end the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program without military action.”

He asserted that “it was the EU’s ‘soft touch’ approach to the regime and its nuclear ambitions 10 years ago that allowed for the advanced enrichment program. Now, European (particularly German) trade relations and visits such as this [one] work against the impact of international sanctions. If military action is eventually required, as a last resort, to stop Iran, such irresponsible actions by European officials will share responsibility.”

However, Satu Helin, a spokeswoman for Cronberg, told the Post via email that the Iran trip was “far from confirmed.”

“The EP Iran delegation is only searching for possibilities for the visit, and nothing has been agreed yet (but there is an approval from the conference of presidents),” she wrote.

Though Helin initially said the visit, if it took place, would most likely be in the beginning of May, Cronberg later released a statement that “it has proved impossible for the Majlis to receive the delegation from the European Parliament on the dates proposed [May 2-6]. Alternative dates are being sought.”

European Parliament spokesman Jaume Duch told the Post that “the decision to send a delegation of a maximum of three MEPs to Iran was taken by a majority of political groups in the European Parliament in the Conference of Presidents.”

One of the delegation’s primary aims, he said, “is to reach out to the opposition and human rights activists, including the European Parliament 2012 Sakharov Prize winners for freedom of thought – Nasrin Sotoudeh, an imprisoned human rights defender and lawyer, and Jafar Panahi, a film director who with his work called attention to the hardships suffered by Iran’s poor.”

According to Dr. Wahied Wahdat- Hagh, an expert on EU-Iranian relations and a fellow with the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy, the MEPs think they can change Iran’s government.

“They are making a mistake, because Iran’s rulers think in totalitarian [terms] and act totalitarian and do not allow themselves to be told what to do by the Europeans,” he told the Post.

“It is the worst signal the Europeans can send ahead of the fake elections.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Schwammenthal, the head of the Brussels-based AJC Transatlantic Institute, said that “by letting the [Iranian] regime effectively dictate who they can and cannot meet, the European delegation visit will be nothing more than a propaganda tool for Tehran, which will present it as ‘evidence’ that the Islamic Republic is far from being isolated.”

He stated that “consorting with Iran’s repressive leadership is a disservice to the two prizewinners and thousands of other Iranians who are deprived of their basic rights,” and added, “The grave human rights situation in Iran requires a strong, united response from the European Union, not photo-ops with the repressors themselves.”

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