Senior EU diplomat Josep Borrell absent from business forum with Iran

Rescheduled event goes ahead online without bloc’s foreign policy chief and Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif

FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 file photo, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks to the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels. The top European Union diplomat supervising the international agreement aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions called Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 for a concerted effort to reinvigorate the pact. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP, File)
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A business forum involving Iran and the European Union went ahead on Monday without the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif as a diplomatic row over efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal continues.

Both men were to appear at the event in December but it was postponed over outrage at the execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist accused of using a messaging app to stir up discontent against the regime.

Iran faces increasing pressure from leading EU member states over its failure to co-operate with the UN nuclear watchdog, while talks between Tehran and the US over reviving the nuclear deal are yet to get off the ground.

The accord has been nearing collapse since former US president Donald Trump withdrew America in 2018 and reimposed sanctions as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran.

“Europe-Iran diplomacy is moving at a fast pace at both the EU and member state-levels,” the forum’s organising committee said. “The participation of Mr Borrell and Mr Zarif was not reconfirmed in their schedules following the selection of new dates for the conference.”

Enrique Mora, the political director of the EU’s external action service, attended the rescheduled three-day online event, as did senior Iranian officials and Michael Bock, the head of the EU-Iran trading mechanism Instex, the forum’s website said.

A group of 22 MEPs wrote to Mr Borrell last week urging the EU to snub the conference because of Iranian human rights violations, the execution of prisoners and the conviction of an Iranian minister over a European bomb plot.

“We would like to reiterate our call on the EU to condition any relations with Iran, predicated on the halt to executions and torture and its malign activities abroad,” said the group led by Polish MEP Anna Fotyga.

The forum was criticised by the families of dual nationals held in Iran, including Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish doctor, who remains on death row.

The group campaigning for his freedom wrote the following message on Twitter:

The EU defended the conference saying it was part of a legitimate effort to bolster legal trade between Iran and the bloc.

A spokesman said the event was separate from the EU's political discussions with Iran.