A delegation from the European Parliament is visiting Iran this week, one month after the 15-nation European Union decided to open negotiations for a trade and cooperation pact with the country. The European Union is determined to strengthen relations with Iran, despite U.S. insistence that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism.
The European Union says its aim in conducting what it calls a "constructive dialogue" with Iran is to support economic and political reforms advocated by the country's moderate president, Mohammad Khatami.
Those reforms have been thwarted by hard-liners in the Iranian judiciary who, with the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have closed down pro-democracy publications and jailed or harassed pro-reform journalists and political activists.
Two months ago, the European Union pleased Iran by putting one of the government's main enemies, the Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq, on its list of terrorist organizations. The movement has frequently launched attacks inside Iran and has vowed to overthrow the country's clerical leadership.
But the European Union insists any agreement with Iran will have to include a clause on respect for democratic values and human rights. The European Union also wants Iran to show what one official calls "the appropriate attitude" toward fighting terrorism. Brussels wants negotiations to begin before the end of this year.
The visit by the European parliamentary delegation takes place after President Bush called Friday for Iran to drop what he described as its "uncompromising, destructive policies" and become a friend of the United States. That call was rejected by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which accused Mr. Bush of trying to drive a wedge between the Iranian people and their government.
In January, Mr. Bush described Iran as being part of what he labeled "an axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea. He accused all three countries of seeking weapons of mass destruction, a charge Iran denies.
The European Parliament says its delegation, which is to arrive Tuesday in Tehran, is going there at the invitation of Iran's legislature.
The European Union is Iran's biggest trading partner. It imports Iranian goods, mainly oil products, worth $8 billion, according to the latest EU statistics. Its exports to Iran totaled $5 billion in the year 2000.