Iranian mayor’s visit to Brussels causes stir

Tehran’s mayor Alireza Zakani – an ultra-radical of the Iranian regime – has been invited to attend the Brussels Urban Summit, and even though he is not on the sanctions list, his presence in Brussels was questioned, notably in light of the Belgian aid worker’s recent detention by Iran.

Invited to the Brussels Urban Summit by the international organisation Metropolis, which brings together cities with a population of over one million, his presence has raised questions following the arbitrary detention of Belgian citizen Olivier Vandecasteele in Iran for 455 days – although the latter has since been released after intense negotiations.

Brussels is hosting the 2023 edition of the summit, which welcomes 2,000 representatives from 600 cities over three days. Zakani was received at Brussels City Hall on Monday evening, as he co-chairs Metropolis with his counterparts from Berlin and Guangzhou.

Zakani is a member of the paramilitary force Basidji, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and has been sanctioned by the European Union for serious human rights violations, Le Soir reported. This organisation notably cracked down on the student revolt at Tehran University in July 1999.

Asked about Zakani’s visit, Brussels Secretary of State Pascal Smet (Vooruit/S&D), in charge of International Relations, explained that the visa had been issued by Foreign Affairs. “The Brussels Urban Summit is a major international conference”, Smet told Le Soir.

“Teheran is a member of this global network and was invited by Metropolis in this capacity. Brussels is a diplomatic capital. Just because certain people are present doesn’t mean we agree with them… I wasn’t in favour of him coming, and I didn’t speak to him.”

The Foreign Office confirms that the Belgian Embassy in Iran issued a visa to Kazani at the insistence of the Brussels Region.

“State Secretary Pascal Smet decided to invite the Mayor of Tehran to the Brussels Urban Summit, despite the negative opinion of Foreign Affairs. He expressly asked our services not to object, stressing the importance for the Brussels Region of having Tehran represented at this event.”

Georges-Louis Bouchez, president of the Reformist Movement party (Renew), expressed himself against the Iranian mayors’ coming.

“Emir Kir was expelled from the Socialist Party for a meeting with two far-right Turkish mayors”, he said, reminding the recent case of a Belgian politician’s exclusion from his party because of a meeting. “What then can we conclude from Pascal Smet and Philippe Close’s [Brussels mayor] meeting with the mayor of Tehran whose extremism is beyond doubt?” he added.

Theo Francken, from the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA, ECR), referred to the recent release of Vandecasteele in his tweet on the announcement. “Last month, hang up a large poster of Vandecasteele, last week shed a tear in front of the cameras, this week invite his kidnappers to Brussels town hall. The Socialist party and the [government] can do better”.

Samuel Cogolati, from the Ecolo party (Greens/EFA), also shared this opinion on LN24. The mayor of Teheran is known for his “ultra-radical and ultra-nationalist positions” as well as for his role in the “mollah’s terror regime”, and his being invited to Brussels is a “mistake”, he said.

“We act as if nothing had happened” with Vandecasteele, two weeks after his liberation, he underlined.

Vandecasteele’s liberation was followed by the release, via Belgium, of three other EU nationals. However, Iran still detains several other EU nationals to this day.

(Anne-Sophie Gayet |

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