Cosying Up to the Iranians

For decades, Austria has been a questionable frontrunner in relations with the Islamic Republic

Top Stories | Franziska Zoidl | December 2013 / January 2014

Iran has been dominating the news since the recent deal with western states, in which the Iranians agreed to limit their nuclear programme in exchange for reduced sanctions.

But another side to Iran’s relationship to the West – its ties with Austria – has remained relatively invisible.

This fall, Tehran became a hotspot for Austrian politicians: MEP Hannes Swoboda (SPÖ), former Minister of Defence Werner Fasslabend (ÖVP), and State Secretary Reinhold Lopatka (ÖVP) each met Iranian politicians to talk about Austro-Iranian relations.

Once again, Austria is acting as a political bridge-builder for the regime that has been under U.S. sanctions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The UN and the EU followed in 2006 and 2007 in protest against Iran’s nuclear programme and human rights violations.

More sanctions have been added since, with the EU putting an embargo on oil and freezing the assets of Iranian banks in 2012.

International experts fear their nuclear capability could be used to build a bomb, while Iran claims its nuclear programme is peaceful and has stopped expanding its uranium enrichment capacity since Hassan Rouhani became president.

While Austrian politicians were in the Iranian capital, the Supreme Leader and head of state, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, called Israel an "illegitimate bastard regime", in a speech delivered to students and published on his website.

In 2012, he called Israel "a cancerous tumour that should and will be cut out".

All of this has passed without significant criticism from the visiting Austrian politicians, yet Swoboda spoke of the great reputation Austria enjoys in Iran, "because we stood by Tehran in difficult times," while Lopatka remarked that "nowhere in this region, do I see stability as in Iran."


Icebreaker Austria

Not all Iranians in Austria are comfortable with the countries' close ties.

"When representatives of the regime were not welcome anywhere, they were always welcome in Vienna," says Hiwa Bahrami, representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in Austria and Germany and one of more than 17,000 Iranians in Austria.

"[But] that is certainly not in the interest of the Iranian population and the democratic opposition".

As a political activist, Bahrami had to leave the country in 1993 because the secret police were after him. Many Iranian exiles choose to stay out of politics, Bahrami said, as those who are openly against the regime can’t go back easily.

While Canada suspended relations with Iran in 2012, citing terrorist support and human rights violations, Austria chose to maintain its historically respected standing in Tehran.

After the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, when 55 U.S. nationals were held for 444 days, Iran became internationally isolated. Only five years later, Austrian Foreign Minister Erwin Lanc (SPÖ), a member of the Bruno Kreisky administration, became the first western foreign minister to visit the country, paving the way for many more to come.

Relations were also close with Kurt Waldheim, former UN secretary general and Austrian president, discredited for concealing the truth of his military past under the Third Reich.

Stephan Grigat, a political scientist at the University of Vienna and research director of Stop the Bomb, a coalition for a nuclear-free and democratic Iran sees parallels between Austria – with its anti-Semitic past – and Iran: "I’m afraid that that’s one of the reasons why the relations between Austria and Iran have been so good," he said.

"It is noticeable that the two successor states of National Socialism, Austria and Germany, have played a political avant-garde role when getting Iran out of its isolation after 1979." Later, both countries were the first to initiate trade with the regime.

Austria, for example, acted questionably when three Kurdish-Iranian opponents of the regime were killed by a group of Iranian assassins in Vienna in 1989. The killers were allowed to return home.

According to Bahrami, "the way Austria handled the case was not what you would expect from a constitutional democracy."

Austria also did nothing when one of the assassins – now an Iranian politician sought under an international arrest warrant for the killings in Vienna – travelled to Switzerland and Croatia as part of a European delegation in October.

"Back then and today nothing was done for two reasons: Fear of the Mullah-regime and economic interests," Bahrami said.


More of the same

The new president, Hassan Rouhani, whose daughter lives outside of Vienna, acknowledged the importance of Austria for Iran in a tweet, saying that he expects Austria "to play a more active role in ensuring the Iranian nuclear program is normalised."

After winning the election in August, Rouhani presented himself as a new political voice, impressing westerners by telephoning U.S. President Barack Obama, the first conversation between leaders of the two countries since 1979.

He also showed willingness to negotiate on Iran’s nuclear programme. But according to Grigat, he is "just a smiling version of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Over 30 years, the regime and the Supreme Leader denied the Holocaust, most famously under Ahmadinejad. It seemed like a change when Rouhani played down holocaust denial in an inteview with CNN in September.

"There is no substantial difference between them," Grigat said, criticising the downplaying of the dangers of the new leadership by both governments and the media.

Bahrami agrees: "Rouhani’s sole mission is to free the regime of international sanctions," he said.

There have been "a lot of positive words" since Rouhani took office, said Heinz Patzelt, general secretary of Amnesty International Austria.

But while some political prisoners were released in September before Rouhani’s visit to the UN, twice as many people were executed between June and October compared to 2012 and the organisation reports continuous human rights violations.


Recent developments

In early November, Iran and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) struck a deal allowing broader inspections of their nuclear sites. And later that month, an interim deal was reached in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers: the United States, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany.

Iran agreed to limit their nuclear programme, including enriching uranium to no more than five per cent, in exchange for lighter sanctions.

The temporary deal is the first of its kind after 10 years of frustrating negotiations. U.S. President Barack Obama announced that it would "help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon", while for Rouhani, the deal meant that "Iran's right to enrichment has been recognised".

For Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, it was an "historic mistake". The deal is not final and a follow-up agreement is planned to contain a "mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency", according to The New York Times.


The blind side

In the interests of energy access, European countries are increasingly eager to lift the EU-wide trade and financial sanctions on Iran.

In their October report on business relations with Iran, the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) states, "In general Iran and Austria enjoy very good and close business relations.

For decades, products and services by Austrian companies have been greatly valued in Iran." It continues to say that while the Austrian exports have not been directly affected by the current sanctions, they have been increasingly complicated by indirect effects.

The WKÖ has played an especially inglorious role, according to Grigat, vetoing any form of sanctions and offering seminars teaching entrepreneurs how to bypass them in 2010. While exports to the Islamic Republic brought Austria between €300 and €350 million before 2010, they have dropped significantly to €219 million in 2012.

It is mainly medium-sized Austrian companies that do trade with Iran, Grigat says, although the situation has shifted a little with global players like the Austrian energy concern OMV.

There has been pressure from NGOs like Stop the Bomb who have made business relations with Iran public: A 2007 deal involving OMV investment of over €20 billion for the exploration of natural gas fields in Iran was cancelled following national and international criticism.

"The really big global players have to make a decision: Do they want to do business with the USA, or with Iran?" Grigat said.

In December, Austria hopes to break the ice once again:

Organised by the Wirtschaftskammer, an Austrian business delegation will travel to Iran, which Grigat said will be "the first European business delegation in a long time."

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