The report also notes that the reestablishment of high-value trade ties between Iran and Italy had been encouraged by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has nonetheless struck an aggressive tone regarding the nuclear agreement that enabled such state visits and agreements.
Khamenei’s interest in the Italian market no doubt stems from the fact that Italy had once been Iran’s largest trading partner in Western Europe. Prior to the implementation of economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, trade between the two countries had peaked at approximately eight billion dollars, and now Khamenei and Rouhani are reportedly encouraging the Italian government to speed the return to this situation.
Khamenei’s comparatively permissive attitude toward Italy may have also been encouraged by the eagerness with which Italy sought to resume bilateral ties in the wake of the July 14 nuclear agreement. It was among the first countries to send a trade delegation to the Islamic Republic, and when Rouhani visited in January, Italian officials came under fire from some critics for arguably going too far in accommodating the visitors, as by covering up classical nude statues in a Roman museum.
By contrast, Rouhani’s visit to France just days earlier was fraught with some degree of tension. A planned dinner meeting between Rouhani and French President Francois Hollande had been cancelled after the Elyse Palace refused to acquiesce to Iranian demands that the French hosts not consume alcohol or allow it to be placed on the table. And last month, a planned visit by Rouhani to the Austrian capital of Vienna was called off because Austria authorities refused to cancel or obstruct a protest that was set to be led by the exiled Iranian dissident group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Although it was not immediately clear what Supreme Leader Khamenei’s particular views were with regard to restoring trade relations with France and Austria, he did make a clear distinction between Italy and “some other European countries, since they act as the United States dictates.”
But whether or not France is considered to be among these countries, it is clear that leading French authorities and businesses mean to continue their push to expand access to the Iranian market. For instance, Economic Calendar reported on Thursday that the French oil and gas company total – one of the world’s six industry leaders – had confirmed its plans to return to Iran.
Already, French commercial aircraft manufacturer Airbus has signed a deal with the Islamic Republic estimated at 25 billion dollars. That arrangement apparently helped to prompt American competitor Boeing to visit Iran early this week and discuss the possible sale of three categories of its aircraft to the country’s aging commercial fleet. This has led to increased anxiety from American critics of the nuclear deal, who fear that such outreach threatens to go beyond the provisions of that deal and unnecessarily enrich the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
Effectively as a form of compensation for this push toward increased engagement, the Republican leadership of the US Congress, along with some Democratic allies on this issue, have been pushing for an increase in sanctions related to Iran’s ongoing illicit and provocative behavior. One issue that is a focus of particular attention at the moment is Iran’s test last month of three ballistic missiles in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution that calls upon the country to avoid work on weapons that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The Obama administration imposed new sanctions related to one such test that occurred in October, approximately three months before implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But it declined to do the same for a similar test in November, and does not appear to be moving to do so for the three March launches, in spite of considerable congressional urging.
In fact, Bloomberg reported on Thursday that Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, had pushed back against legislation introduced by Republican senators that would impose new sanctions and formally bar Iran from access to the US financial system. Szubin warned that American sanctions tools could lose effectiveness if they were “overused.”
“New mandatory non-nuclear sanctions legislation would needlessly risk undermining our unity with international partners,” Szubin said in an apparent reference to the European rush to invest in the Islamic Republic – a rush that has been said to be held back somewhat by the apparently linger risk of sanctions enforcement and new punitive measures.
It was recently reported that the White House had assigned diplomats to discuss the nuclear deal with US businesses in order to alleviate concerns about some of these risk factors. These and similar efforts have arguably contributed to the decisions by Boeing, European companies, and European heads of state to visit Iran and openly pursue the rapid expansion of trade ties.