{mosimage}Scotland On Sunday, By Struan Stevenson: This week, Iran's Supreme Leader will have a chance to "elect" the person he favours to lead the Islamic Republic. For, unlike democratic Europe, Iran is ruled by theocratic dictators and, as such, the polls there are a farce.

Scotland On Sunday

By Struan Stevenson

{mosimage}THIS week, Iran's Supreme Leader will have a chance to "elect" the person he favours to lead the Islamic Republic. For, unlike democratic Europe, Iran is ruled by theocratic dictators and, as such, the polls there are a farce.

The fundamentalist mullahs are brutally suppressing the people of Iran. Thousands are on death row and Iran is recognised as the most prolific executioner of minors, having judicially murdered dozens over the past three years. Last month, it hanged Delara Darabi, a talented young female artist, for an alleged a crime that she had denied committing at the age of 17.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, more than 120,000 political prisoners have been executed. The regime uses more than 170 forms of physical and psychological torture, including public hangings, stoning to death, amputation of limbs, eye gouging and draining prisoners' blood.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is Supreme Leader Khamenei's favourite to continue as president, has also ordered a crackdown on universities and women. Nearly a million Iranians were harassed on the street by security forces last year. None the less, Iranian universities have been a hotbed of student activism and protests, and Iranians held 8,000 anti-government rallies last year. Last month, several hundred teachers chanted "death to the dictator" at a Tehran rally in defiance of the regime's feared security apparatus.

Despite the atmosphere of heightened repression, millions of Iranians demand the freedoms offered by the country's parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and its president-elect Maryam Rajavi, whom I co-chaired the Friends of a Free Iran inter-group with and invited to the European Parliament on several occasions, to act as the voice of those millions yearning for change.

Ahmadinejad had once promised to bring oil revenues to the dinner table of poor Iranians'. He promised to eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment.

In office, he handed lucrative contracts to cronies, including his former colleagues in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Under his watch, the official level of Iran's annual inflation rate reached 29.4 per cent and the price of food items increased on average by two to five times.

Rather than work to solve the people's financial woes, Iran spends billions of dollars annually on its illicit nuclear weapons programme and sends money to terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, to derail the fragile Middle East peace process.

Ever since the NCRI blew the whistle on Iran's nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak in 2002, European leaders have wasted time trying to negotiate with the regime and offering countless incentives.

European Union officials pinned hope on behaviour change and moderation on the part of the mullahs. But, moderation of Iran's fundamentalist regime is only a mirage. The mullahs ignored countless incentives.

EU leaders have to face the reality that the regime is interested in negotiations only to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear projects. The mild sanctions currently in force are having little effect, not least because the EU continues to remain Iran's biggest trading partner. But time is now running out.

Fortunately, under the Obama administration, the prospects of US military airstrikes are off the table. But, the EU's current policy of appeasing the regime has had the effect of making it more brazen in its unlawful behaviour.

At a time when Iranians are yearning for change, Rajavi says the EU should extend a hand of friendship. Comprehensive, smart sanctions are needed to target the mullahs' economic lifeline. This should be coupled with western support for democratic change by the Iranian people and their organised Resistance.

Hundreds of colleagues at the European Parliament have since declared their support for this "third option", signalling that the people of Europe stand on the side of the millions in Iran who seek freedom. EU leaders should start acting fast.

We should count ourselves lucky that we have a free and fair election process in Europe; it is something of a distant dream in Iran.

For the past five years Struan Stevenson has been co-chair of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup in the European Parliament. He is standing for re-election to the parliament