While this three-day visit is certainly a milestone in terms of its significance to Iranian-European trade relations, it is also the natural continuation of a trend that began only days after the July 14 signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel headed the first of a series of European trade delegations to Iran, which came to include visits from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, British Foreign Minister Phillip Hammand, and others.
Opponents of the nuclear agreement have criticized the apparent rush to invest in the Islamic Republic, which began before the UN voted to implement the nuclear agreement, and even before the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations. The US has yet to complete its own vote on implementation of the agreement, following a 60 day congressional review. The deal is poised to be voted down by the Republican Congress on September 17 but to subsequently pass on a presidential veto.
Among those who are expected to vote against the deal, many worry that the agreement itself will increase funding for Iranian-backed terrorism, by delivering tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to the Islamic Republic soon after the deal goes into effect.
Many of these individuals also worry that active European investment will only further enrich the Iranian government’s terrorist-financing, especially through the country’s Revolutionary Guards, who control a number of large-scale Iranian businesses as well as conducting foreign paramilitary operations in the Middle East and beyond.
On Monday it was reported by the Times of Israel that the second-highest Iranian cleric had taken steps to rein in incendiary rhetoric from the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. However, Supreme Leader Khamenei had previously said that existing Iranian policy would not change in any degree following the nuclear agreement.
The tension between these two facts may suggest that the Iranian leadership is seeking to control its public rhetoric as part of a broader strategy of encouraging the trend of European investment and trade development. Recently, OPEC announced that Iran had outlined 185 billion dollars’ worth of oil and gas development projects that it hoped to put into effect by 2020, partly with help from the West.
As one example, Reuters reported on Monday that Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh had detailed his country’s plans to sell liquefied natural gas to European markets by channeling the exports through Spain. According to La Prensa, the latter country’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, also visited Tehran on Monday, where he participated in a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart and claimed that the two countries could be significant partners not only in trade but also in other bilateral relations including the confrontation of the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria.
Reuters explains that there are notable incentives for not only Spain but also the rest of Europe to sign on with Zanganeh’s plans, in large part because they will allow the EU to shift away from dependence on Russia, with which relations have deteriorated in the past couple of years.
But Iran needs the European market as well, having lost much of its potential market share in Asia to the Gulf nation of Qatar. But this mutual economic need does not necessarily equate to mutual strategic benefit. And the desire to move away from Russia is potentially complicated by the fact that relations between Iran and Russia have strengthened over the same period that relations between Russia and Europe have weakened.
Improved trade with Europe may thus provide Iran with new resources for political influence and strategic cooperation in Asia. And this does not end with Russia. China has also sought closer relations with the Islamic Republic, including through bilateral defense agreements and joint naval maneuvers.
Furthermore, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has previously explained that Asia’s major rogue nation, North Korea, has sent scientists and experts to Iran on numerous occasions to help with the development of technology related to nuclear weapons capability. At a gathering of its board of directors on Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano referred to the nuclear status of both Iran and North Korea, indirectly raising the specter of collaboration between the two at a time when Western leaders are cautiously hopeful of their prospects for monitoring Iran’s activities.
Some expert critics of the Iran nuclear deal, however, have compared it to a prior deal with North Korean which led to the totalitarian Asian country reneging on its commitments and successfully developing a nuclear weapon. This in turn led to the current situation, in which Amana emphasized that North Korea could be further developing its nuclear capabilities at the current moment, in absence of UN monitoring.
As to the present situation with Iran, Amano claimed to be confident in the IAEA’s monitoring of the entire pathway of Iran’s declared uranium stockpiles. However, he left open the possibility of undeclared stockpiles that may have gone as yet unnoticed and unmonitored. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has previously claimed that its intelligence shows undeclared sites that appear to serve as part of an overall secret enrichment pathway.