(CNSNews.com) – European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, on a “goodwill” visit to Iran, said she had been privileged to celebrate International Women’s Day with a group of Iranian women. But her hosts didn’t share the sentiment, reacting sharply on Monday to what they called an “unsanctioned” meeting with dissidents.
“It was a great privilege to meet with women from Iran and to have the chance to celebrate with them International Women’s Day and to have a chance to talk about issues for women in Iran, in Europe and indeed across the world,” Ashton said during a joint press appearance with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Ashton, wearing a headscarf, kept the remarks brief and diplomatic, making no reference to the challenges faces by women in the fundamentalist Islamic state.
Zarif did not react at the time and his characteristic smiling was much in evidence. Later he tweeted that his discussions with the E.U. official – the first such high-level visit in six years – had been “constructive.”
But his ministry protested that Ashton had held an unauthorized meeting with female activists, and said it has submitted a formal complaint to the Austrian Embassy, which organized the encounter.
“Such acts will not help improve relations between Iran and the European Union,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, adding that they would “deepen our people’s suspicion of the West.”
“Contact with [civil] society is recognized in diplomatic protocol so long as it does not constitute interference in internal affairs and respects customs,” she said.
Afkham added that the meeting, having taken place without prior coordination with the foreign ministry, was evidence of the West’s double-standard and selective political approach towards human rights issues.
The ministry’s complaints struck a jarring note after the outwardly cordial exchanges between Ashton and Zarif. The two know each other reasonably well, as she is convenor of the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and the foreign minister heads the Iranian delegation in those talks.
The talks are due to resume in a week’s time, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue, to replace an interim deal reached last November, which granted Iran some sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program.
A prominent Iranian military figure, deputy chief of staff Gen. Massoud Jazayeri, also criticized Ashton’s meeting “with some notorious people,” calling it a “violation of diplomatic rules and a harbinger of future interference” by the West in Iran’s affairs.
“We won’t allow the West to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs under any pretext,” Jazayeri said, advising Ashton to focus on “resolving the problems related to women’s rights in the E.U.”
The Tehran Times said Ashton had met with seven women, including Narges Mohammadi, a leading human rights advocate who has faced harassment, persecution and several periods of imprisonment at the hands of the regime over the past decade.
Mohammadi, who is spokeswoman for Defenders of Human Rights Center, a group headed by the exiled Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, was sentenced in 2011 to six years’ imprisonment on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propagating against the regime.”
After international calls for her release, Mohammadi, who suffers from muscle paralysis, was released on bail in mid-2012.
Ashton also met with the mother of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who was arrested after criticizing the regime and died in detention in November 2012, days after submitting a complaint to prison authorities about alleged assaults and torture by police.
The semi-official Fars new agency said some of the women Ashton had met with had been convicted for involvement in unrest following the June 2009 presidential election “or for harming the country’s national security in other cases.”
Fars said Iran had subsequently established that the U.S. and Britain had played a major role in stoking both the post-election unrest, and further protests the following December.
(Massive protests followed the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompting a violent crackdown and mass arrests. Ahmadinejad blamed fresh protests six months later on “America and the Zionists,” and the regime orchestrated large counterdemonstrations by supporters who demanded the execution of opposition leaders and denounced the U.S. and Britain.)
Iran has a poor record on women’s rights.
A report by the U.S.’s “special rapporteur on violence against women,” delivered to the U.N. General Assembly last November, cited abuses against women in Iranian prisons including the rape of virgins before execution, forced marriages and other forms of sexual violence and torture.
Another U.N. report, in Sept. 2012, noted that under Iran’s Islamic penal code, “a woman’s testimony in a court of law is regarded as half that of a man’s and, despite amendments … a woman’s life is still valued as half that of a man’s.”
Despite its record, Iran was controversially elected onto the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in 2010, despite an appeal by hundreds of Iranian women’s rights activists, who told the U.N. that Tehran would use its position “to curtail progress and the advancement of women.” Iran will sit on the CSW until 2015.