Foreign Ministry summons Swiss envoy to J'lem over Iran deal
Assaf Uni – Haaretz 19 March 2008
Swiss Ambassador to Israel Walter Heffner on Wednesday was called for a meeting in the offices of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in response to a deal signed between Switzerland and Iran on Monday for the supply of Iranian natural gas to Europe.
General secretary of the Western Europe department of the Foreign Ministry Rafi Barak on Wednesday criticized the visit of Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey to Teheran, calling it an "unfriendly gesture" to Israel.
Israeli officials stated that in the current situation, wherein the UN Security Council has passed sanctions against Iran and the international community has mounted concerted efforts to force the Islamic Republic to shelve their nuclear program, it is inappropriate for countries to pursue large scale economic contracts with Iran.
Barak told Heffner that Iran is "continuing its nuclear program, aiding extremist and terrorist organizations, violating human rights, and denying the right to exist of a United Nations member country [Israel], all the while disseminating anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel."
Experts said the deal, which sparked harsh criticism from the United States and is worth an estimated 20 billion euros, may signal a renewed willingness by European companies to do business with Iran in the wake of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that essentially eliminated the possibility of an American military strike on Iran.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf, attended the signing ceremony in Tehran. She said the deal was needed to diversify Switzerland's energy sources and lower its dependence on Russian gas.
Under the agreement - signed by National Iranian Gas Company and the Swiss firm EGL, which is indirectly owned by Switzerland's cantons - Iran will supply Switzerland with 5.5 billion tons of gas a year for 25 years, starting in 2011. The gas is slated to be sent via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which has not yet been built.
An EGL spokesman told Haaretz that the agreement "does not contravene the [United Nations] sanctions [against Tehran], since we aren't investing in Iran." He also noted that other European gas firms are considering buying from Iran as well - an apparent reference to Austria's OMV, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran last year to purchase gas worth 20 billion euros. That deal must still be finalized.
France and Britain have taken a harder line, recommending that their national gas companies not sign any new deals with Iran.
Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, who heads the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute, said the Swiss deal was "a direct result of the American National Intelligence Estimate."
"The report's publication changed the trend in Europe," he said. "For the past year, most European companies have been in waiting mode. They checked details, examined possibilities, but refrained from finalizing commitments. But following the report, the business perception changed and the pressure on Iran was lifted. If a respected country such as Switzerland, which cares about its international status, is ready to travel to Tehran to sign an agreement, what will other countries think? What will other international corporations think?"
The American embassy in Bern published a statement on Monday denouncing the deal, saying it sent "precisely the wrong message at a time when Iran continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions." Even if the deal does not violate the letter of UN sanctions, the statement added, it "violates the spirit of the sanctions."
The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities also expressed disappointment with the deal, as did Israeli officials.
A Swiss journalist who covered the deal, who requested anonymity, told Haaretz that the U.S. had tried repeatedly to stop it, but "Switzerland feels that it is backed by the European Union, and by the real needs of its residents."
Barak Ravid contributed to this report.
Last updated 21/03/2008