Foreign minister apologises over Brussels summit controversy

Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib has apologised to the House Foreign Relations Committee for her role in the Brussels Urban Summit controversy. Lahbib has come under fire in recent weeks over her decision to grant visas to a delegation of 14 Iranians who attended the event. The affair had sparked speculation about the possibility of her resignation.

Lahbib, of francophone liberal party MR, said she understood "that she should have expressed herself differently" and regretted "that certain people felt intimidated or endangered by the presence of the Iranian delegation" in Brussels. "Political decisions must take reality into account - including how that reality is felt. I apologise if I have not taken this sufficiently into account," she said on Monday in the Belgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee.

Resignation rumours

The presence of a 14-member Iranian delegation, including Tehran's mayor, Alireza Zakani, at the Brussels Urban Summit drew widespread criticism earlier this month. Brussels secretary of state Pascal Smet came under fire over allegations that his cabinet had pressured the federal Foreign Affairs ministry to grant visas to the Iranians despite initial negative advice.

Smet resigned after it emerged that the Brussels region had paid for accommodation for the Iranian and Russian officials. Lahbib's resignation was, until now, considered possible but unlikely.

Lahbib was questioned about the affair last Wednesday before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee. After severe criticism from both the opposition and MR's coalition partners - greens and social democrats - over the "diplomatic fiasco", prime minister Alexander De Croo came to Lahbib's defence. He referred to the context in which the invitations to the Iranian delegation were sent: it happened in March, when Belgium was negotiating the release of Olivier Vandecasteele, the NGO worker who was held in an Iranian prison for more than a year.

A refusal would have caused a significant diplomatic incident and would not have improved the fate of Vandecasteele and other Europeans imprisoned in Iran, De Croo said. Lahbib's office consulted with the office of the PM, which gave the green light.



Foreign minister Hadja Lahbib © BELGA PHOTO JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE

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