Very quietly, without arousing too much attention, Austria is turning into one of Iran's most important partners in the European Union. Germany, which is Iran's largest EU trade partner, has until now been the main target of criticism by the Israeli government and international organizations seeking to convince the world to stiffen sanctions on Iran. And this criticism is working: Several German companies, such as the giant Siemens corporation, have said they will reduce their trade with Iran.
But while most EU countries reduced their commercial ties with the ayatollahs' regime in Iran over the past year, Austria expanded them.
Austrian exports to Iran grew by 6 percent in 2009, to 350 million euros. This statistic takes on special significance given that due to the global financial crisis, Austria's total worldwide exports shrank last year by 20 percent. Only with Iran is trade increasing, Simone Dinah Hartmann wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal.
The problem is not just the existence of commercial ties, but their nature. Some Austrian companies involved in this commerce are suspected of trading with straw companies that actually belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
In his book "Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb," scholar Emanuele Ottolenghi names several of them. For instance, Tech Hydropower, a subsidiary of Austria's Andritz group, is building a dam in Iran as a subcontractor of Sepazad Engineering, which is actually the Revolutionary Guard's engineering arm.
The Revolutionary Guard is not only the regime's premier military force; it is effectively the regime itself. In addition to its military activities, the Guard controls an economic empire that includes significant parts of the Iranian economy, including energy, communications, engineering machinery, banking and construction firms.
The Guard is also in charge of the clandestine development of Iran's military nuclear program and missiles. For that purpose, it has established commercial bodies that operate undercover all over the world in an effort to obtain equipment, materials and knowledge for these programs, thus circumventing the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the EU. These firms and purchasing networks specialize in obtaining "dual-purpose" equipment and technology - products intended for civilian purposes such as medicine or industry, but which can also be used as essential components for the missile and nuclear programs.
A substantial percentage of the business done by Austrian firms with Iran, even if they don't know it, or prefer not to know, is done with companies belonging to the Revolutionary Guard. Thus in the end, this business helps to advance both programs.
Under the draft resolution that the U.S. and EU are trying to pass in the UN Security Council, the next sanctions to be imposed on Iran would be directed specifically against the Revolutionary Guard. Yet even as this effort proceeds, a proposal is still pending for a giant transaction worth billions of euros between OMV - Austria's largest energy corporation, which is partly state-owned - and Iranian firms. For now, the deal has been frozen due to public pressure, mainly from the Stop the Bomb group, for which Hartmann is the spokeswoman, and American Jewish groups.
Six years ago, the president of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, was already declaring that "For us, Austria is the gateway to the European Union." A clear expression of the increasingly close ties between the two countries was Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's visit to Vienna a few days ago, where he met with his Austrian counterpart, Michael Spindelegger.
Just two months ago, Spindelegger visited Israel and promised that Austria would align itself with the EU when it came to imposing sanctions against Iran. But apparently, declarations are one thing and deeds are another. Moreover, by allowing Mottaki's visit to take place, the Austrian government ignored both implicit and explicit requests from its American, French and British counterparts that it refrain from doing so.
Austria, whether ruled by socialists or conservatives, has a long tradition of close ties with the Iranian mullahs' regime. In the summer of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate against the government, calling for "azadi" ("freedom"), the Austrian Chamber of Commerce organized a seminar for businessmen about opportunities for trade and investment in Iran.
As far back as 1984, Austria's Erwin Lanc became the first Western foreign minister to visit Iran after the Islamic Revolution. And the late Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, whose presidency was clouded by revelations about his Nazi past, visited Tehran in 1991 and placed a wreath on the sarcophagus of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
Moreover, there is still no solution to the mystery of whether the young Revolutionary Guard colonel Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now the Iranian president, was in Vienna in 1989 participating in the hit squads that killed three Kurdish Democratic Party activists. From that day to this, the police, the Justice Ministry and the Austrian intelligence services have made no effort to get to the bottom of the story.
To conclude, a reminder: The Israeli government constantly complains about Austria and other countries that trade with Iran and demands that they reduce these ties, so that sanctions will be effective and the regime in Tehran will understand that it is paying a high price for its nuclear program. But aside from preaching to the entire world, the Israeli government is not making even the smallest contribution to the international struggle.
This column has already noted several times that the Israeli government, or groups financed by it, grant contracts to international companies, or to their Israeli branches, without making even the minimal demand that they reduce their ties with Iran. Requests to the Prime Minister's Office on this important issue have fallen on deaf ears; it continues to fall victim to bureaucracy and neglect.
National Security Council chairman Uzi Arad, who is thought to have a great deal of influence over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once admitted to Haaretz that "There really is a problem here. But it's not on my watch." Both Arad and the Prime Minister's Office claim that the issue falls under the purview of the Finance Ministry and the Justice Ministry's Money Laundering Prohibition Authority. In other words, nothing has been done.
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