by LobeLog’s Tehran correspondent
It seems like a weekly tradition for senior European officials to travel to Iran. On August 4, for the third consecutive week, a delegation of Europeans arrived in Tehran, this time as part of an economic panel led by Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni and Minister of Economic Development Frederica Guidi.
According to the Iranian media, other Italian ministers and the heads of Italian insurance agencies, banks, auto manufacturers, and pharmaceutical industries—as well as water, electricity, gas, and oil companies such as ENI—accompanied the delegation.
Since 2012, when sanctions were at their peak, Iran lost its profitable trade with European countries. Now, after signing the nuclear deal, Iran is not losing any opportunity to improve its relations with European powers. On August 5, on meeting the Italian foreign minister, Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, said there are no obstacles to improving bilateral relations, and the two countries “could open a new chapter in economic, political, cultural, scientific and tourism exchange.”
Italy is the third member from the G8 forum, the European Union, and the P5+1 to travel to Tehran since the nuclear agreement in July.
On July 19, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, as well as the country’s economy and energy ministers, were the first prominent European political figures to visit Tehran as part of a delegation of 60 trade and political staff. Gabriel, who’d been invited by Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, met with various important politicians, including President Rouhani, the ministers of trade and energy, and members of both the private sector and the Chamber of Commerce. The heads of large German companies such as Siemens, Mercedes Daimler, and Volkswagen were also present.
Italy and Germany have long worked hard to maintain relations with Iran. They did so from the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who believed in opening the economic doors to the European countries, to the beginning of the sanctions implemented by the EU in July 2012. And they did so despite the Mykonos killings and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s scandalous denial of the Holocaust during his presidency from 2005 to 2009. Almost no conservative or fundamentalist political figure or newspaper reacted negatively to these German and Italian visitors.
The French Connection
When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius subsequently visited Tehran, however, his trip raised a lot of criticism and controversies. The official and unofficial reports of Fabius trying to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in deference to Israel during the 2013-2015 nuclear talks with the P5+1 have been a great excuse for Iran’s extremists to show disproval both before and after his visit. For example, on Fabius’s departure on July 24, Reza Taghavi, the policy director for the Center of Friday Prayers—a powerful political entity whose members are directly chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—said that the “Imams of Friday Prayers believe that those who pressured Iran the most at the times of sanctions, must be moved to the end of the line and not to be received by [hospitality and] red carpets.”
For several days in a row, the Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, interviewed the fundamentalist Majlis members who were against Fabius’s trip. One famous figure was the former Revolutionary Guard commander Esmael Kowsari. He told Fars News that “the French never come here for Iran’s economic benefit or to feel sorry for us. But our officials don’t realize this.” The Majlis representative of the holy city of Qom had an even stronger reaction. He called France “Israel’s representative” in the P5+1 talks.
Dozens of Basiji students gathered at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran to protest the French foreign minister’s arrival. According to the Kayhan newspaper, the most infamous critic of the government’s foreign policy, police cracked down on the protestors, tearing down their posters and even arresting a few.
A Tehran political analyst who prefers to remain anonymous says, “Many fundamentalists were against the nuclear deal to begin with. So, they have no credibility in saying that their opposition to Fabius is because he had been pro-Israel during the talks.” He believes that France’s special position worries them. “Historically, like United States and the Great Britain, France is considered the cradle of democracy, and it traditionally has pressed for the improvement of human rights and democratization in Iran. Therefore, the French minister’s visit is a symbolic gesture that could also represent the government’s green light for democratization. This of course is the main reason for the extremists’ opposition.”
On July 29, the front pages of almost all Iranian reformist newspapers—such as Shargh, Etemad, and Ghanoon—talked about the French foreign minister’s visit and published many optimistic articles about the upcoming relations between Tehran and Paris. A day before his trip, Fabius himself published an op-ed piece in Iran Daily, the official government newspaper, offering a cautious approach to political issues and emphasizing the need to improve economic relations with Iran.
Centrality of Economics
Both Iranians and Europeans identify economic and trade relations as the key factors for ensuring the successful implementation of the nuclear agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif clearly expressed this attitude when he said on August 4 at a meeting of the foreign affair councils that “economic relations with Western countries must be so intertwined that no party finds it profitable to withdraw from the deal.”
A reliable source from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told LobeLog that “currently, officials from Spain, Switzerland, and Austria are also coordinating visits to Tehran.” The French and the Italian foreign ministers have also officially invited President Rouhani to travel to their countries.
These European visits to Iran also help counter anti-deal sentiments coming from the right-wing government of Israel as well as the Republican House and Senate in the United States. The trips tend to legitimize the nuclear deal while the invitation extended to the Iranian president legitimizes Iran as an ordinary member of the international community. Europe’s political and diplomatic approaches could also have the opposite effect of strengthening opposition in Israel and the United States to the nuclear agreements.
Photo: Laurent Fabius
Translation Parisa Saranj