Iran's ties with the European Union (EU) have clearly reached a threshold when the first Iran-EU Business Forum on sustainable energy opened in Tehran on April 29 last with European Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete opening it. The high-profile event was attended by over 50 European companies and business associations and some 40 Iranian energy companies, as reported by the international news agencies and China's weekly Global Times.
The aim of the Forum was to provide a platform for investors and businesses to look for opportunities to develop clean energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation efforts in Iran. During his stay, EU Commissioner Canete also opened a conference on climate change which also brought together Iranian and European policy makers and representatives of relevant global organisations.
In addition to these two important meetings, the fourth Iran-Europe Banking and Business Forum was also held in presence of Canete and detailed discussions on further widening of mutual cooperation in financial sector took place. President of Iran's Monetary and Banking Institute Ali Divandarri, who attended the meeting, said participants discussed the questions of opening Iranian banks in Europe, fighting money laundering and maintaining international standards in financial transactions.
As the business groups in advanced societies are accustomed to deal with their counterparts in banking and financial world in certain acceptable level of sophistication, the European businesses appeared willing to share their experiences with the Iranians for mutual benefit. Iranian professionals have made it known that the Iranians are fast learners and they have also learnt at their own cost that how difficult it has been for them for a long time to get such offers of sharing experiences.
THRIVING IRAN-EU TRADE: Interestingly, these series of important events took place at a time when the new US administration has been threatening Iran for its alleged violation of the nuclear deal reached on July 15, 2015 between Iran and the world powers. The agreement was activated in January 2016.
Iran was bluntly "put on notice" by the US but without specifying any violation of the nuclear deal. The fact that despite Washington's total opposition to Tehran, EU's decision not only to maintain its growing business ties but also to upgrade it to a much higher level speaks of the contradictions within the US-EU relations.
Six major world powers - Britain, China, France Germany, Russia and the United States - signed the nuclear deal with Iran in mid-2015. Earlier, when the UN's nuclear watchdog IAEA (International Atomic Energy Commission) confirmed in mid-January 2016 that Iran had complied with the deal designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, all economic sanctions against it were lifted. The EU's then foreign policy chief said that the deal would contribute to improvement of regional and international peace and security.
However, Washington for reasons best known to itself, dragged its feet which had created a lot of problems for Iran to normalise business transactions with the European Union member countries and others. (This happened when Donald Trump was nowhere near the scene!) Iran's supreme leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenie at that time was quoted by news agencies as saying that while on paper the US had said that foreign banks could do business with Iran but in practice they had been "fomenting Iranophobia to prevent improvement of relations."
Perhaps, headlong opposition to the signing of the nuclear deal by Israel and Saudi Arabia along with the rightwing Gulf monarchies, the Obama administration at the time found difficult to straighten out its Iran policy even after signing it.
Meanwhile, at the Iran-EU Business Forum on sustainable energy, Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete announced in Tehran that Iran's exports to the EU countries increased many times after activation of the nuclear deal. He said, Iran's exports to the EU member countries amounted to 5.494 billion euros in 2016 as against only 1.235 billion euro in 2015. Of course, because of the low base in their trade volume under sanctions, the improved trade figures appeared so big in percentage term.
COOPERATION IN CLEAN ENERGY AND BANKNG: While nobody expected things to change overnight improving in the clean energy and banking sectors between Iran and the EU, the EU Commissioner gave some positive indication in his speech. He said both Iran and EU had boosted cooperation with each other in different sectors during 2016 and signed a number of agreements. Besides, he pointed out that the EU was "keen on cooperation with Iran in the clean energy and banking sectors."
During these comprehensive meetings between the two sides, they reviewed the progress of the Paris Agreement (on climate) and at length discussed the role of clean energy in the transition to low-carbon economy and measures required to face the consequences of the climate change. Tehran's needs to keep pace with its overall development featured prominently.
Clearly, the EU Commissioner was on important and multifarious business trip. During his stay, Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete managed to have detailed discussions with the head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Iran's Vice President, Oil and Energy Minister on substantive issues. In those meetings, the agencies reported, Canete expressed EU's readiness to transfer their experience in the development of clean energy to Iran to enable Tehran to meet 30 per cent of its energy needs from renewable energy resources by 2030.
It should be mentioned here that the Iranians were eager to take the advantage of any offer that the EU leadership was willing to make to help it achieve its development goals in a difficult period.
IRAN HARDLINERS BACK NUCLEAR DEAL: Meanwhile, in a welcome development, Iran's hardliners, who had been opposing President Hassan Rouhani's nuclear deal with the world powers, are now seemingly toning down their opposition to the deal. However, they are opposed to moderate President Rouhani who is seeking a second term and the poll is due on 19 May 19 and supporting their own hardliner candidate.
A top official of the hardliners group Alireza Zakani has been quoted by the Financial Times of London as saying: "We consider the nuclear accord a done deal and will remain committed to it unless the US officially withdraws from it." The issue has become a critical electoral battleground between reformist group headed by President Rouhani and the hardliners. Rouhani repeatedly argued that that the nuclear deal "has deterred the shadow of war from the country."
The supporters of the moderate president Rouhani say that the nuclear accord has lifted sanctions and enabled the country to double its oil production, improved its struggling economy and has helped it reach out to foreign investors. While observers are not very clear about the outcome of the presidential poll, the people are seeing the changes in the field themselves and can draw their own conclusion.