Austria president to become first European leader in Iran in decade

Heinz Fischer hopes to build bridges with Tehran, discuss human rights record; European Jewish Congress slams visit with ‘murderers’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Austrian President Heiz Fischer. (CC BY-SA Thomas Steiner, Wikimedia Commons)
Austrian President Heiz Fischer. (CC BY-SA Thomas Steiner, Wikimedia Commons)

Austrian President Heinz Fischer said Monday he hoped to build bridges with Iran and raise concerns regarding the country’s human rights record during his official state visit to the Islamic Republic this week, the first by a European head of state in over a decade.

“Austria is a land of dialogue. We reject violence. We want to build bridges and want to seize every opportunity to reduce tensions and promote a climate that promises a better future than if we remain stuck in confrontation,” Fischer said Monday according to Reuters.

Fischer will meet supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif, one of the main negotiators of the nuclear agreement signed in Vienna on July 14 with six major world powers during his visit starting Tuesday.

Fischer, whose political role is largely ceremonial, will be accompanied by Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mittelehner, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and economic experts. The president is also set to attend an economic conference on Iranian-Austrian relations.

It will be the first visit to Iran by an European head of state since Thomas Klestil traveled there in January 2004 as Austria’s president, Fischer’s office said.

Since the signing of the nuclear accord in July, a number of senior European figures have been quick to visit Iran, including the EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, as well as the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain.

Europe has looked to restart economic ties with the lifting of sanctions, as well as repair long-dormant political relationships.

The long-awaited nuclear deal — signed with Russia, France, Britain, China, Germany and the United States — has cleared a path to lift sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, and should reopen channels for foreign investment in oil and gas-rich Iran.

Neutral Austria, which has long had good relations with Iran, is hoping for a five-fold increase in exports to the Islamic Republic, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike other Western countries who broke off all economic and diplomatic ties with Iran following its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Austria has maintained relatively warm ties with Tehran.

According to the report, Fischer told a local television station that he intends to raise the issue of human rights with Iranian leaders during the official three-day trip.

The European Jewish Congress criticized the visit, and its Vice President Ariel Muzicant condemned Austria’s political leadership and business elite for their willingness to “shake hands with murderers.”

The Berlin-based NGO Stop the Bomb also joined in criticizing the official visit, and said it would only serve to legitimize Iranian policies.

“The supreme leader Ali Khamenei, whose hand Fischer will shake tomorrow, openly threatens to this day the Jewish state (Israel) with destruction and denies the Holocaust,” Stop the Bomb official Stephan Grigat said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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