Israel fumes at ‘post-sanctions’ Iran conference in London

Endorsed by Rouhani and being attended by top UK figures, Wednesday’s gathering heralds ostensible ‘momentous commercial opportunity’ created by ‘improved political relations’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Iranian men work on a Peugeot 206 at the Iran Khodro auto plant, west of Tehran, on October 11, 2014. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
Iranian men work on a Peugeot 206 at the Iran Khodro auto plant, west of Tehran, on October 11, 2014. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

An international conference to promote business ties between Europe and Iran is set to begin Wednesday in London, arousing the ire of local pro-Israel groups and senior government officials in Jerusalem.

The “1st Europe-Iran forum” seeks to prepare the ground for “post-sanctions investment and trade,” according to its official website. Speakers at the conference, which has been endorsed by the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, include former foreign ministers from the United Kingdom and France, one British MP, and a senior official currently serving in the British Foreign Office.

“It’s a manipulation orchestrated by Tehran and certain business circles and friends of Iran,” a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “Their purpose is to create a public atmosphere that would eventually make European governments more amenable to compromise regarding the nuclear negotiations with Iran,” he charged.

“In recent months, Iran has been trying to present itself as part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” he went on. “They’ve been doing this with ISIS and with Afghanistan, and now they created this honey trap — all while the sanctions are still in place. The point is to exert pressure on Western governments.”

Taking place in central London’s Grosvenor Square Hotel, the Europe-Iran forum appears to be being convened on the premise that Iran and the West are closing in on a comprehensive deal over Tehran’s nuclear program which would end the sanctions the international community has imposed over recent years. Throughout the continent, organizers say, commercial interest in Iran was rekindled by the interim agreement that Tehran and six world powers signed in November 2013, which saw some sanctions lifted.

The banner of the "1st Europe-Iran forum," a "post-sanctions investment and trade" conference in London (photo credit: screen shot
The banner of the “1st Europe-Iran forum,” a “post-sanctions investment and trade” conference in London (photo credit: screen shot

The stated intention of the Islamic Republic and the so-called P5+1 — the US, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — to reach a comprehensive agreement by November 24, 2014, “foreshadows an expected rollback of the current international sanctions against Iran,” the conference website states.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Vienna with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an effort to advance the nuclear negotiations. But gaps between the sides are still wide and many observers believe they will prove unbridgeable in the remaining weeks.

Nonetheless, the organizers of the Europe-Iran forum seem to be suggesting to participants of the two-day event that an agreement is at hand and the sanctions are about to end. “With the prospect of improved political relations and a new business climate between Europe and Iran, a momentous commercial opportunity presents itself,” the website states. The forum’s purpose, therefore, lies in preparing and evaluating the “post-sanctions trade framework and investment opportunities.”

The conference, organized by European Voice, a newspaper focusing on matters related to the European Union, is billed as an “incomparable occasion to gain practical insights from experts across all industries, providing the most relevant, up-to-date information from Iran and Europe.” More than 200 senior business executives and “policy makers from Iran and Europe” are expected to attend.

Jack Straw (photo credit: UK Ministry of Justice / Wikipedia Commons)
Jack Straw (photo credit: UK Ministry of Justice / Wikipedia Commons)

Confirmed speakers include Jack Straw, a British MP and former foreign secretary; Hubert Vedrine, a former French foreign minister; and Edward Oakden, the current director of the UK Foreign Office’s Middle East directorate. British advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell, who is Jewish, is also listed as speaker, which has prompted objections from some pro-Israel groups.

According to the conference website, questions to be discussed at the gathering include:

  • Which sanctions are being lifted and which ones remain active?
  • What will an agreement entail and what will be its impact on trade and investment relations between Europe and Iran?
  • What are the main challenges of doing business in Iran?
  • How has Iran’s economy prepared to date for increased foreign investment and trade engagements?

Conferences similarly trying to woo Westerners into exploring trade opportunities with Iran have been already been held in Germany and France, said the senior Israeli diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The idea behind such events is to whet the appetites of international businessmen for post-sanctions trade with Iran by suggesting that those who show interest now will have an advantage over their competitors when, rather than if, a deal is struck on the Iranian nuclear program and the sanctions are lifted. “The Iranians and their supporters are basically saying that whoever comes first will get the best deals. But it doesn’t work. It’s a transparent ploy,” the official said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a press conference in Shanghai on May 22, 2014. photo credit: AFP/Mark Ralston)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a press conference in Shanghai on May 22, 2014. photo credit: AFP/Mark Ralston)

In a letter to the conference organizers, Rouhani’s chief of staff and former deputy commerce minister Mohammad Nahavandian wrote that a conference to help foreign investors better understand the present state of the Iranian economy was “commendable.” Forum participants are expected to “take constructive steps toward private sector collaboration on both sides, giving Iran the prospect of a competitive presence in the global economy and establishing regional and international interaction with a win-win approach,” Nahavandian wrote.

In Jerusalem, the endorsement of a close Rouhani confidante is regarded with suspicion. “It should come as no surprise that the Iranian president supports this conference,” a different senior Israeli government official said. “The Iranians want the sanctions lifted and the economic pressure removed. This is the whole point of their charm offensive. It’s therefore crucial that people are not sucked in to that charm offensive.” Tehran’s support for this conference “is totally in synch with their overall strategy,” he added.

Sir Martin Sorrell (photo credit: Copyright by World Economic Forum by Sebastian Derungs)
Sir Martin Sorrell (photo credit: Copyright by World Economic Forum by Sebastian Derungs)

Israel has consistently said that sanctions can only be lifted if the Iranians abandon their quest for the bomb and their military nuclear capacity is dismantled. “Such a capability is not only a grave threat to Israel but to the entire region and to Europe itself,” the senior official said. “And leaders in Europe should not delude themselves over the gravity of the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.”

The Europe-Iran forum is “compliant with the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations,” the gathering’s website states. “Therefore, no individual or entity is restricted from participating in this event and from engaging in discussions and exchanges of information about Iran or with Iranian nationals,” it adds. The site then delineates in great detail how the conference doesn’t violate any US sanctions.

OFAC enforces economic sanctions “based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes,” according to its website.

‘Europe’s scramble to do business with this regime hinders progress to a peaceful resolution, because it decreases the price Iran has to pay for its dangerous actions’

Opposition to the Europe-Iran forum has also come from other quarters.

“It is disappointing to see this event take place in London, when the British government is a leader in Europe in working to stem the threat from Tehran’s illegal nuclear program,” said Davis Lewin, the deputy director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.

“Negotiations with Iran are at a critical stage, and the signs are not encouraging — Iran has been unyielding over several key aspects of its nuclear program, including some of the most troubling aspects such as access to the sites suspected of being used for weaponization tests,” Lewin stated. “Europe’s scramble to do business with this regime is thus not only premature, but rather events such as these hinder progress to a peaceful resolution because they decrease the price Iran has to pay for its dangerous actions.”

The participation of Sorrell, the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest marketing communications group, has drawn criticism from groups including the Zionist Federation.

In an open letter, activists urged him to reconsider his participation in the forum, the London-based Jewish Chronicle reported. According to the letter, the groups “struggle to understand why you would speak of trade with one of the world’s most violent and theocratic regimes, with a long history of antisemitism and which does not hide its anti-Israel sentiments.”

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