Iran and Germany: Business as Usual?

BERLIN - A conference entitled "Iran - Business Opportunities for German Exporters" is opening tomorrow in Darmstadt, Germany, under the auspices of the Hessian state government and an initiative of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, and to the chagrin of Israeli diplomats, who have accused Berlin of sending a message of "business as usual" to the regime in Tehran.

The event is being organized by the state's chamber of commerce and industry as part of its "Middle East and North Africa Meet Hesse" week.

Conference lectures include: "Behaving appropriately with Iranian trade partners" and "The situation in Iran from the standpoint of Germany's economy."

In view of the international sanctions on Iran for refusing to freeze its nuclear program, the invitation states: "Iran is accustomed to crises - but somehow always keeps going forward. Iran's economic potential makes the country a worthwhile investment in any case."

The text of this invitation was removed from the chamber of commerce's online site last weekend.

"The Germans are sending the Iranians a dual message," a diplomatic source told Haaretz. "On one hand, they are supportive of sanctions against Iran on the nuclear issue, but on the other hand they are conveying an image of business as usual."

Israeli officials also point to the Berliner Ensemble's upcoming visit to Iran to stage a production of "Mother Courage," and to the Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra's performance there last month. "What are the Iranians supposed to understand from this?" the sources wondered, "that nothing has really changed?"

Germany is the major exporter to Iran today. Last year, following six consecutive years of double-digit growth in the export rate, Germany sold Iran goods worth 3.6 billion euro ($5 billion). But the Security Council sanctions and heavy American pressure to sever trade ties with Tehran have taken their toll: exports have dropped 20 percent since the start of this year. Hence the conference in Darmstadt.

"The overall goal is to present current events regarding Iran in a neutral fashion, in view of the tension created as a result of the changes to the law [the sanctions] and the insecurity prevailing today," said Axel Scheer, one of the conference's organizers.

Scheer told Haaretz that the conference is being funded mostly by the participating companies, which he refused to name. He added that all promotional material had been removed from the Web site "to defuse the situation."

The federal economics ministry behind the chamber of commerce conference declined to comment for this article.