The Timeline of a Failed Attempt: Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel Visits Iran to Expand Commercial Ties
Iran could have normal, friendly relations with Germany only when it accepted Israel’s right to exist German Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel told Der Spiegel a few days before his visit to Iran.
Gabriel’s remarks sparked a controversy in Iran, with many pressing foreign ministry officials to cancel the visit. The visit itself was not canceled, but Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani cancelled his scheduled meeting with the German official. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Larijani’s special aide in international affairs, provided explanation: “It is essential for us to maintain the country’s principled stances and political independence”. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also said “no one can set conditions for Iran. Iran is an independent country”.
Zarif dismissed the German official’s call and said, “Our policies are clear and [officials of] different countries travel to Iran in the knowledge that the country’s policies are constructive.”
“Ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Germany are based on mutual respect and interests, and no precondition would be acceptable in this regard,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi responded. “In addition, we … deem the involvement of any third element [in the development of ties] as disruptive to bilateral relations,” he added.
Finally, on Tuesday, administration spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht said Gabriel had told him his remarks had been distorted. According to Nobakht, Gabriel said he perfectly understood Iran’s position. Before visiting Iran, he had promised human right organizations he would discuss human right conditions and death penalty with Iranian officials.
Prior to Gabriel’s visit, an Iranian Principlist daily, Javan, affiliated with IRGC, had called on Iranian officials to refuse entry to “this friend of the Zionists”. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, member of Majlis’ national security and foreign policy committee, told Javan that the Germans brought up the issue in line with their public diplomacy and were well aware that Iran would not give any importance to such remarks. “The German Economy Minister’s remarks are of domestic significance and an effort to shrug off pressure by the [domestic] opponents, because everyone knows that the Zionist lobby is quite powerful in Germany and it’s pressing the German government over ties with Iran,” he reiterated.
Commenting on Gabriel’s human rights and terrorism precondition for ties with Iran, he said everyone knew that the West’s economic goals in cooperation with Iran are much more important than such issues.
Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani also lambasted Mr. Gabriel’s remarks, saying he would not allow him to enter the country if he were in the shoes of the administration and the foreign ministry. “The administration and the foreign ministry should preserve the nation’s dignity and block the way for such individual so that they understand they should observe their diplomatic manners and apologize to set a step forward,” he said.
Kayhan daily, the most vocal critic of the Rouhani administration, also published an editorial written by Hossein Shariatmadari, in which he called the foreign ministry’s response ineffective. “According to completely reliable reports, it is almost a year the Iranian President is planning a visit to Germany but the German government has failed to allow the visit based on different excuses, humiliating in some cases,” he wrote. A separate article later claimed that the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs had disagreed with the cancelation of the visit over the German official’s interventionist positions.
Last year, Spiegel Online had reported on the differences within the German government over inviting President Rouhani for a visit. According to Spiegel, the German Chancellor believed that Iran was still a supporter of Hezbollah and remained a threat to the Zionist regime while her vice stressed the profitability of economic deals with Iran. That is to say, unlike Angela Merkel, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel believed that without an immediate Rouhani visit, the German economy would fall behind in a showdown over profitable deals with Iran.
The controversy over Gabriel’s Iran visit was not limited to Iran. In Germany, Roderich Kiesewetter, Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee member, told liberal daily Tagesspiegel that a direct dialogue with Iran was right and necessary but Gabriel should bring up differences as well. The German Green Party, an opposition that carefully scrutinizes the social-democrat government, also warned of excessive optimism about expanding trade ties with Iran.
Nonetheless, as Der Spiegel has noted, Gabriel’s visit in the company of a 120-man delegation made up of giant German firms’ representatives, was not quite fruitful in the face of banking problems. Behrooz Abdolvand, a member of Forfait AG’s supervisory board says the visit met a mixed welcome in Tehran. “Iran’s judiciary chief said the administration should not allow Gabriel in Iran. The Principlists also considered Mr. Gabriel’s remarks as an intervention in domestic affairs. In my opinion, Mr. Gabriel’s remarks did not help the German economy. In sum, the visit was positive but did not yield the results expected. I personally expected more”. The CEO of the IT- and management consultancy axxessio, Goodarz Mahbobi, also among the high-profile delegation, says the main obstacle on the way of expanding commercial ties between Iran and Germany is the banking problem.
“We have four fundamental problems. The first is the sanctions, lifted in Europe but partially remaining in the US. The second is that of insurance, by Hermes. Iran owed the firm $2b. When the sanctions started, they paid $1.5b but $500m remained unpaid. In the past four weeks, Iran has paid the debt back and resolved the issue. The third is the loans. Firms that should offer loans for activities inside Iran are not quite willing because they fear that the sanctions could be re-imposed. The fourth problem is that of financial exchanges and transfers of the banks. That is because big banks such as Commerzbank made mistakes during the sanctions era, were heavily fined for [bypassing] the sanction and are very careful since then,” Mahbobi says.
Since the summer of 2015, almost twenty German trade delegations have visited Iran. According to German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce (AHK Iran), ten other delegations will visit Iran in 2016.
Nonetheless, the German Vice Chancellor left Iran empty-handed. In Tehran, He consulted and negotiated over the banking issue and promised investment by big Dutch banks. However, since the major German banks are also working in the United States, they are naturally concerned about the return of sanctions.