Left-wing members of the European Parliament are pressing ahead with plans to visit Iran while the European Union prepares to impose tough new sanctions on the theocratic regime over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
A "bridge-building" delegation led by Green Party member Tarja Cronberg of Finland is scheduled to land Saturday in the Iranian capital, Tehran, for a six-day visit with members of the Iranian legislature.
The trip has sparked fierce opposition from European lawmakers who accuse the Iranian regime of violating human rights and pursuing an atomic bomb to threaten Israel and rival Islamic countries.
"This is scandalous," said Struan Stevenson, a Scottish conservative and chairman of the Parliament's Friends of a Free Iran caucus.
He noted that the last time a "friendship delegation" from the European Parliament visited in Iran in 2007, the regime staged a public hanging of political prisoners.
Mr. Stevenson, who also heads Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq, warned that the Iranians already are exerting strong influence over the Iraqi government.
"The mullahs already almost control neighboring Iraq, and they are seeking regional dominance, and for a suppressive regime of this nature, acquiring nuclear weapons would be an absolute tragedy," he said at a news conference last week with two fellow conservative members of Parliament.
"That's why we have to deal with this regime in the toughest manner possible, with sanctions, with encouraging people to rise up and throw out the corrupt, evil mullahs. This is a regime where people guilty of murder, rape, torture and corruption are promoted. And these are the kind of people our delegation will go to meet. It is a tragedy and something that will be exploited ruthlessly by the mullahs for propaganda purposes," he said.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras of Spain, a vice president of the European Parliament, warned that the delegation will send "mixed messages" with its trip, especially after the European Union last week imposed tougher sanctions on Iran.
"Whatever good intentions our colleagues may have, such visits would give credit to the mullahs and is completely for the benefit of the Iranian regime to justify the repression, violation of human rights and export of fundamentalism and terrorism," he said.
Tunne Kelam of Estonia added that the trip comes as two Iranian dissidents are among those nominated to receive a major European human rights award.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, an imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer, and Jafar Panahi, a dissident film director, are among the finalists to received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The winner of the award is expected to be announced Friday, the day before the delegation is scheduled to arrive in Iran.
Ms. Cronberg, chairwoman of Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iran, announced in July that European legislators were planning a trip to Iran to meet with the Iranian parliament's Friendship Group.
"This visit will provide the first opportunity for dialogue between the two delegations for over three years and should be regarded as a bridge-building exercise," she said.
Iranians last met with European lawmakers in Brussels in 2008.
Ms. Cronberg added that the Europeans will try to press the Iranians on "issues such as human rights, nuclear negotiations and drug trafficking," according to notes from the July meeting of the Delegation for Relations with Iran.
The Tehran Times newspaper last week reported that the visitors will include 15 members of the European Parliament, and that Kazem Jalali, a member of the Iranian parliament, will lead Iran's delegation.
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