Security was tight in Vienna on Wednesday for the official visit of the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A wide area around the Hofburg palace in Vienna’s 1st District was cordoned off, and helicopters could be heard circling in the blue and sunny sky.
As is common practice with state guests, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen greeted the Iranian and accompanied him down the red carpet in the palace’s inner courtyard, as the musicians of the military honor guard played the national anthems.
From here on, however, President Rouhani’s mission was anything but easy. He had the delicate task of salvaging the Iran nuclear deal, after the shock of the U.S. unilaterally withdrawal in May.
Rouhani arrived in Vienna directly from Geneva, Switzerland, which along with Vienna had hosted international negotiations in 2015. On this trip, he hoped to rally support for the accord, especially from the two counties that had been so crucial to making it possible.
After their joint meeting, Rouhani and Van der Bellen delivered prepared statements to Austrian and international journalists. Counter to usual practice, though, neither leader took questions. This had been one of Rouhani’s conditions, Van der Bellen aides told a group of journalists.
In a very friendly and uncontroversial exchange, Van Der Bellen and Rouhani were in full agreement about the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is referred to in diplomatic circles.
“For Austria and the EU, the JCPOA is an important agreement and a key element in the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Van der Bellen stressed. He added that as host to the negotiations, Austria felt a “special responsibility” to keep the deal alive. Van der Bellen also regretted the reinstated sanctions by the U.S. that also target Austrian and other European companies, trying to continue to do business with Iran. “Secondary sanctions run counter to international law given their extraterritorial application,” Van der Bellen said.
Iranian President Rouhani echoed Van der Bellen remarks as he called the JCPOA an important agreement not only for Iran but for the entire world. He said that his government was ready to stick to the accord provided that Iran would continue to profit from it and praised his hosts effusively, on Twitter even in German:
500 Jahre Freundschaft und 160 Jahre wirtschaftspolitische Beziehungen zwischen Österreich und Iran – stolzerfüllt blicken wir auf dieses Fundament und werden diesen Bund mit gegenseitigem Vertrauen weiterführen.
Vielen Dank für Euren herzlichen Empfang und Eure Gastfreundschaft. pic.twitter.com/63eUg6naVb
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) July 4, 2018
Clash over Israel
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was less accommodating. While welcoming the two countries’ “good diplomatic relations” over the past 160 years, he underlined the importance of respect for human rights, for women’s rights and for religious freedom (including in Iran itself). And of Austria’s continued support of Israel. He had in fact called the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just that morning, before meeting Rouhani, to reassure him of Austria’s support.
In an unusually direct manner, Kurz said in his statement: “Israel’s security is non-negotiable for us,” “Questioning Israel’s right to exist or downplaying the Holocaust is absolutely unacceptable.”
In my meeting with President #Rouhani I also emphasized that #Israel’s security is non-negotiable for us. Questioning Israel’s right to exist or downplaying the #Holocaust is absolutely unacceptable. 2/2
— Sebastian Kurz (@sebastiankurz) July 4, 2018
This prompted an equally strong response from the Iranian President who said to a stony-faced Kurz: “The Zionists are occupying and suppressing people in the Gaza strip and shelling innocent civilians.” Israel’s role in the region was “destructive,” he said bluntly, and was “supporting the Islamic State.”
The press statements were over and aides hurried Rouhani away for further meetings with Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), along with business leaders from the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.
Tensions continued outside, however, as the pro-Israel alliance STOP THE BOMB held a rally by the cordoned off area near Hofburg. Under the hashtag #RouhaniNotWelcome they tweeted:
“To meet with Rohani does not strengthen purported ‘moderate forces’ in Iran, but antisemitic terror regime of ‘Islamic Republic’ at large”
Rally #RouhaniNotWelcome in Vienna, Wednesday, July 4:
10 am, Maria-Theresien-Platz
5 pm, Wiedner Hauptstraße/Johann-Strauß-Gasse pic.twitter.com/WxWVVxt75x
— STOP THE BOMB (@STOP_THE_BOMB) July 3, 2018
The Iranian visit was clearly a balancing act for the EU – and for the Austrian government.
President Rouhani’s visit was overshadowed, however, by the arrest in Germany of a Vienna-based Iranian diplomat, over an alleged plot to sabotage a rally of an Iranian exile opposition group in Paris. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted:
How convenient: Just as we embark on a presidential visit to Europe, an alleged Iranian operation and its “plotters” arrested. Iran unequivocally condemns all violence & terror anywhere, and is ready to work with all concerned to uncover what is a sinister false flag ploy.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 2, 2018
Sources at the Austrian President’s office and the Austrian Foreign Ministry agreed, as all seemed particularly suspicious of the timing of the operation.
Despite the controversy, Rohani’s attempt to rally support for the deal was hailed by the international community as Foreign Ministers from the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal (Iran, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) met in Vienna on Friday at the Palais Coburg hotel, the original venue of the epic talks in 2015.
For many of the journalists present, it was déjà-vu, as they waited behind the barriers in front of the hotel for the foreign ministers to deliver statements to the media.
One of the last to arrive was German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “We are meeting here today to make sure the nuclear agreement with Iran has a future,” he said. “After the withdrawal of the United States, which we can’t understand, we face a difficult situation. We want to make clear to Iran that it will still stand much to gain through this agreement.”
Save the Deal?
As the ministers took their seats in the same room and around the same table where they had spent so many hours negotiating in 2015, there was a strong sense of resolve.
After about three hours, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, emerged. “The participants in the JCPOA have reconfirmed their commitment to the full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal,” she said. Europe, along with Russia and China, was working on financial mechanisms to mitigate the negative effect of U.S. sanctions on Iran, as well as on the European companies operating there.
While this would certainly not be the last meeting of the committed signatories of the Iran nuclear accord, the image of them coming together in Vienna to try and save the deal sent a strong political signal to the world.