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Belgium’s FM on the brink over Iran visas fallout

Belgium’s FM on the brink over Iran visas fallout

by host

BRUSSELS — Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib is under mounting pressure from both the opposition and some of her own government partners after Belgian authorities allowed an Iranian delegation to attend a summit in Brussels last week.

Lahbib, who will face a grilling from Belgian lawmakers Thursday, now finds herself in a tight spot — though it’s unclear whether she will resign.

“It can still go both ways,” a Belgian government official who was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, told POLITICO. “A lot will depend on what she will say in front of Parliament tonight.”

Lahbib is under fire over the delivery of visas to 14 Iranian officials, including Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani — a regime hard-liner — to attend the Brussels Urban Summit last week. The saga has already led to the resignation of Brussels Secretary of State Pascal Smet on Sunday. 

Lahbib already fought to defend herself in front of the Belgian federal parliament on Wednesday. “A visa refusal would have been perceived as a humiliation,” she told MPs. 

“Our country did not want to take that risk for the simple reason that we continue to work for the release of arbitrarily detained Europeans” in Iran, the minister said.

Despite the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian humanitarian worker who was freed last month in a swap with an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism in Belgium after spending more than a year in Iranian detention, several European citizens remain in custody in Iran.

Dilemma with deadly implications

Lahbib, a former journalist who has only been in politics for about a year, is now facing trouble on two fronts. 

Her explanations have failed to convince the Greens and the Socialists, who are part of the government coalition, while some opposition parties, such as the Flemish nationalists, are demanding her resignation.

“‘The trust is gone, at this moment there is no support anymore. The minister did not acknowledge her mistakes, did provide explanations about the many contradictions, and did not commit to communicating more honest in the parliament in the future. We therefore asked to continue the debate, also about the principles of our foreign policy,” Wouter De Vriendt, who leads the Flemish green party in the Belgian parliament, told POLITICO on Thursday.

“Where do we stand on Iran? What is our value framework regarding human rights? Are we constantly rolling out the red carpet for Tehran from now on? I would like to know all that,” he added.

Lahbib received support from Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who said Wednesday that the government was concerned the “agitation in Belgium has consequences on the innocents in Iran.”

“And that’s the essential question: Is a human life worth a visa?” De Croo asked.

Coalition squabbling

But for De Croo’s coalition partners, the issue goes beyond the Iranian visas. 

There is still some bad feeling left after earlier resignations of a green government official and Smet. More importantly, the free-riding attitude of Lahbib’s party president, Georges-Louis Bouchez, has been annoying government partners for years. His coalition allies blame Bouchez for sabotaging the government’s work for the sake of his own political gain, for example on nuclear power.

If Lahbib were to deliver a heartfelt apology later Thursday, there is a chance that other government parties would be ready to move on.

None of the seven coalition partners are keen to risk a major government crisis — especially since Bouchez could pull out of the government completely if Lahbib has to resign, which would deprive the De Croo administration of a parliamentary majority.

A resignation would also have European implications. Lahbib is set to play a key role in the Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU during the first half of 2024. Her roles include foreign minister, EU minister and trade minister, which would involve chairing a wide range of Council meetings.

This story has been updated.

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