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German lawmakers hope to visit Iran to press government on human rights abuses

Three German lawmakers are planning to travel to Iran later this week to discuss with officials the "striking human rights abuses" in the country, one of the parliamentarians said Tuesday. Such a visit by Western officials would be unusual for Iran, where the Islamist government faces increasing isolation over its nuclear program and where authorities have long been sensitive about their treatment of minorities, women and dissidents.

The Germans, who are still waiting for their visas, plan to spend four days in the Islamic Republic, meeting with Iranian lawmakers, academics and representatives of minority religions. But already, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has declined the group's requests to meet with opposition activists, jailed dissidents or members of the Baha'i faith, a religious group the Iranian government considers heretical.

"For us it is important to make our position once again very clear, especially in regard to the striking human rights abuses in Iran," Bijan Djir-Sarai, an Iranian-born lawmaker from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition, told The Associated Press.

He expressed frustration about the authorities' reluctance to grant some of the meetings, but also cautioned that such contacts could be dangerous for the oft-persecuted Iranians involved. "We don't want to make their life yet more difficult. We leave after a couple of days, but they stay behind and might get in trouble then," Djir-Sarai said.

Human rights organizations and Western governments have long accused the Iranian government of committing human rights abuses against non-Muslims, holding back women's rights, and clamping down on the political opposition. Concerns about the latter in particular spiked after the disputed 2009 elections that gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term.

But the issue of human rights in Iran has often a back seat in recent years to another major worry for the West: that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such plans, saying its nuclear program is peaceful, but it has failed to reassure the U.S. or Washington's allies, especially Israel, which views Iran as a top threat to its existence.

As the U.S. and other countries have imposed tough sanctions on Iran over the nuclear issue, visits of Western officials have become relatively scarce. In a rare exception, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle traveled to Iran last year to obtain the release of two jailed German journalists.

Djir-Sarai said the "nuclear program and threats against Israel will also play a role in the talks with lawmakers," though they are not the focus of the trip.

Djir-Sarai's family fled Iran in 1987 when he was 11 years old. The 34-year-old is a lawmaker with Merkel's junior coalition partner, the pro-market Free Democrats. Also traveling will be lawmakers Thomas Feist from Merkel's conservative party and Angelika Graf of the center-left Social Democrats.

The group plans to leave Saturday and return to Berlin next Friday.

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Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz