Israel's allies, Iran's trading partners
Switzerland, Germany and Austria's business ties with Iran are inviting criticism from U.S., Israel.
The shareholders of the giant Austrian energy concern OMV gathered yesterday in Vienna to hear a report from the management about the company's 23 billion euro deal with Iran. Under the terms of the deal OMV, which is in effect controlled by the Austrian government, would invest in developing the Pars gas field in southern Iran in exchange for liquid natural gas, transported by tanker and by pipeline. In this way, Austria hopes to diversify its energy suppliers and reduce its dependence on Russian gas.
The implications of the discussion in Vienna could contribute, if indirectly, to answering the main question that is preoccupying Israeli political and military leaders: Will Israel be forced to attack Iran's nuclear sites? Despite the avid interest in the corruption scandals surrounding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that is the real issue with which the country's decision makers and security figures are wrestling.
The government's strategy is that a military assault would be the last resort. In order to prevent a war, the international community must be mobilized to pressure Iran into halting its nuclear program. The most effective tool to achieve this goal is international sanctions. The UN Security Council has issued three sanctions against senior figures, organizations and companies in Iran that are connected to the country's nuclear and space programs. Because of the positions of Russia and China, however, these sanctions have been weak and despite Iran's claims to the contrary they have not ended Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons.
As a result, in the past few months there has been a somewhat desperate attempt, mainly by the United States and Jewish organizations, to persuade European Union member states to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran: to reduce their trade with the regime of the ayatollahs in order to hurt Iran's economy in general and its soft underbelly - the oil and gas industries - in particular. The hope is to hurt the economy, and especially the petroleum industry that brings in most of the country's revenues, enough to lead the regime to conclude that its desire for nuclear weapons is a losing proposition.
But while the Jewish organizations and the American administration express their dissatisfaction loudly, the Israeli government prefers to act quietly and behind the scenes. Three countries with close trade relations with Iran are in the eye of the storm: Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
Germany is Iran's biggest trading partner in the EU, with exports of 4 billion euro to the Islamic Republic in the past year alone. Dr. Matthias Kuntzel of Hamburg University is an expert on Berlin-Tehran relations and a major activist in the campaign against this policy. He participated in a conference held earlier this month in Berlin by the Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin, a coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, aimed at demonstrating the extent of the ties between the two countries.
"When Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet ministers attended a joint session with the Israeli cabinet in Jerusalem and spoke about their commitment to Israel's continued existence," Kuntzel told Haaretz, "German companies were continuing to do business with Iran. There can be no greater hypocrisy."
At the conference he presented data showing that over 1,750 German companies sell advanced machinery and other equipment to Iran's petroleum, textile, plastic and printing industries. The most notable exporters are Siemens and Linde, which he claims supply essential equipment that Iran may also be using in its nuclear program.
Kuntzel says that about 40% of Iran's imports from the EU are from Germany. "Vested interests in Germany claim that if we do not sell to Iran our economy will suffer," he says. "But that is a crude lie. If we stop our commercial ties with Iran, it will affect only one half of one percent of all our exports but it will cause irreparable damage harm to Iran. Germany has to understand that unless stringent and effective sanctions are imposed against Iran, the option that will remain is war."
Switzerland also recently signed a gas deal with Iran. About a month ago Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey went to Tehran, where she ingratiated herself to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and attended the ceremony at which a $42 billion gas supply contract, slated to begin in 2011, was signed with Swiss company EGL company. The Anti-Defamation League condemned the deal and called Switzerland "the world's newest financier of terrorism." Hoever, since officials in Jerusalem view Germany as an important ally they are not rushing to publicly condemn its trade ties with Tehran, preferring to protest via quiet diplomacy instead.
In Austria, meanwhile, a major protest is brewing against OMV's gas deal with Iran. The Austrian government holds some 31% of the shares in the concern, while 18% are held by an investment firm from Abu Dhabi and more than 50% by the public. Stop the Bomb, a coalition of Austrian organizations and activists, has recruited Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel for its campaign. It is threatening a boycott campaign against OMV. The President of the World Jewish Congress and former U.S. ambassador to Vienna Ron Lauder has also joined the protest. "Because of its recent history, Austria has a moral responsibility to fight the Iranian threat," he said in a statement.
But it is extremely doubtful whether the campaign in Austria will be any more effective than the ones in Germany and Switzerland. When large sums of money and a burgeoning demand for energy join forces, morals and values are irrelevant and national interest plays a central role.