Iran canceled on Saturday a controversial visit to Tehran by delegates from the European Parliament, after EP President Martin Schulz conditioned the trip’s taking place on the group’s access to the recipients of the body’s annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Activists Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi, both imprisoned, were chosen for the prize by Schulz and other political leaders.

“After hearing the new conditions, the Iranians decided to cancel,” European Parliament spokeswoman Satu Helin told Reuters.

On Saturday, Iranian MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi blamed the cancellation on “Zionist pressure.”

“Some participating parties in the European Parliament’s delegation that are more easily pressed surrendered to the Zionists’ pressure, and finally, the delegation canceled the visit,” he told state-sponsored Press TV.

Boroujerdi, who chairs the Iranian Parliaments’ National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said that Iran and the Europeans had agreed on a visit with no preconditions. He implied that the request to visit the political prisoners was an “excuse” to conceal that the EP takes “Zionist orders.”

On Friday, Schulz had warned, “If the Iranian authorities prevent a meeting with the winners, delegates of the European Parliament will immediately interrupt their trip and will leave Iran.” The parliamentarians were to carry letters of congratulations, which they had hoped to deliver.

An Iranian official was quoted by Iran’s Mehr news agency as saying that the Europeans had set a precondition for the trip.

“The European Parliament delegation set conditions for [the] visit to Iran and Iran doesn’t accept any conditions,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, international affairs adviser to Iran’s parliament.

Sheikholeslam added, “The European Parliament delegation intended to meet two political prisoners and give them awards and Iran did not agree with such a condition.”

Sotoudeh, a mother of two, is currently on a hunger strike in prison.

Panahi, a filmmaker belonging to the “Iranian new wave” movement, was arrested in 2010 along with his wife, daughter and friends and charged with propaganda against the regime. He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years.

Dissenting Iranian film director Jafar Panahi. (photo credit: CC-BY-SA, Cines del Sur, flickr)

Dissenting Iranian film director Jafar Panahi. (photo credit: CC-BY-SA, Cines del Sur, flickr)

Sotoudeh, a leading human rights lawyer, has represented imprisoned opposition members; she too was arrested in 2010 on charges of spreading propaganda.

Schulz called the award, awarded annually since 1988 in honor of the Soviet scientist and dissident, “a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own. I sincerely hope they will be able to come in person to Strasbourg to the European Parliament to collect their prize in December,” he said, referring to the 50,000 euro sum.

The delegation of five left-leaning MEPs was to be led by Finnish Green Tarja Cronberg, who said earlier Friday that she hoped to meet the two winners. Cronberg noted that she had cut meetings from the group’s itinerary with people on the EU’s Iran sanctions list, such as Iranian chief justice Sadegh Larijani, even though she personally believes the EU sanctions do not work. Her colleague from Germany, Cornelia Ernst, earlier reiterated her intention to go through with the visit, calling sanctions “stupid.”

The planned visit to Iran had been criticized by centre-right MEPs, US politicians, Israeli leaders and Jewish lobby groups as harming international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear activities. The EU recently adopted strengthened sanctions as part of this effort, critics of the visit have pointed out. Several MEPs dropped out of the delegation during the past week, explaining that such a visit would send mixed signals.

The delegation was scheduled to arrive in Iran on Saturday and remain until November 2.