But Rouhani’s moderate credentials have repeatedly been called into question, particularly by human rights-oriented NGOs and various political groups that are opposed to the Iranian regime, but also by Western government officials and the global media in the wake of incidents that seemed to demonstrate the limitations of Iranian-Western reconciliation. For instance, in January a planned dinner meeting between the French government and the visiting Iranian president was cancelled after France refused the Iranians’ insistence that their hosts refrain from consuming wine or allowing it to appear at the table.
That incident likely returned to the minds of some of those who read about the second relevant story that emerged on Monday. The Guardian has reported that a conflict was recently resolved between Air France and labor unions for the airline’s cabin crew regarding the resumption of service to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Female employees of the French airline had been told that they would be required to abide by Iran’s forced veiling laws when running service to and from the Islamic theocracy.
Perhaps motivated by France’s often fiercely secular culture, cabin crew representatives argued that as long as Islamic dress would be mandatory, assignments to flights into Iran ought to be strictly voluntary. Air France conceded this point, and now female flight attendants will be permitted to refuse to serve on flights to Iran, which are set to resume on April 17, at a rate of three per week.
The new rule arguably gives female flight attendants an opportunity to lodge a symbolic protest against Iranian laws and government practices that demand religious observance even by people who do not share the country’s official religious identity. Forced veiling laws in particular have been a central feminist criticism of the Iranian regime and other Middle Eastern governments where women’s rights continue to lag far behind international standards.
But reluctance to serve on flights into Iran may also be based on a more general awareness of the country’s poor human rights record – something that has been repeatedly emphasized in protest activities by European political and human rights groups in the several months since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, of which France was one.
French citizens would have been particularly aware of the persistence of Iran’s human rights abuses and regional intrusions, when the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran worked together with other activist groups to organized demonstrations coinciding with Rouhani’s visit. They did the same in Italy when Rouhani visited as part of the same tour, and they had planned similar protests for last week before Rouhani cancelled his trip to Austria at the last minute.
Initial reports have since been confirmed that the Rouhani administration called off the trip over the Austrian government’s refusal to cancel or obstruct planned demonstrations. In remarks carried on state-run Iranian news outlets Tasnim and ISNA, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani indicated that the regime took particular issue with demonstrations planned by the NCRI constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
In a press statement responding to Larijani’s statements, the NCRI noted that Austrian President Heinz Fischer had effectively accused the Iranian government of trying to undermine fundamental principles of Western societies. “We have taken all necessary security precautions, but Austria cannot prohibit assembly and demonstrations,” he said in reply to the Rouhani administration’s demands. “The right to assembly is deep-rooted in the Austrian constitution… Assembly cannot be prohibited in our democracy.”