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German economy minister gets himself in hot water in Iran


Al-monitor -
 When Germany's Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel entered Iran Oct. 2, accompanied by more than 100 German businessmen, he probably did not expect that some of his comments would cause a minor diplomatic crisis between the two countries and reactions in every Iranian newspaper.

Misha Zand

In an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, Gabriel listed the issues he planned to discuss with Iranian officials during his visit to Tehran. Among the matters Gabriel brought up was Iran's role in the war in Syria, its human rights record and how friendly relations with Germany would only be possible once Iran recognizes Israel.

Gabriel's comments were harshly criticized by Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. In an interview with Mizan, a media outlet close to the judiciary, on Oct. 3, Larijani said, "Officials of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] will not allow [figures] such as the German minister to interfere in [Iran's] internal affairs, and I suggest to the government and the foreign minister that they not allow these figures to enter the country." Larijani, who is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, added, "Apparently, he has been sleeping and does not know that Iran has for the past 30-odd years resisted these types of demands and endured great pressures in pursuit of its beliefs."

In this vein, parliament Speaker Ali Larijani — a brother of the judiciary chief — canceled his meeting with Gabriel without providing a reason. Later on Oct. 3, news surfaced that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had canceled a meeting with the visiting German minister as well. Amid speculations of the reason for the cancellation, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was "due to Zarif's busy schedule." However, Gabriel late on Oct. 3 reportedly held an "unexpected" meeting with Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

The day after Gabriel's visit, Iranian media was flooded with reactions, opinions and analyses of why the reactions to the German minister's comments escalated on such a high level. But Gabriel's comments are not new. In July 2015, upon his first visit to Iran, he also called on Iran to stop questioning Israel's "right to existence."

According to an editorial in Noavaran, a Reformist news outlet, the reasons for the escalation are the "pressures and attacks on the government ... to knock down the government in any way possible." The editorial suggests that the pressures on the government are pre-planned: "One day, [it is] the canceled concerts, another day efforts to cancel a soccer match and the day after [it is about] German's economy minister not coming to Iran."

Meanwhile, hard-line daily Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Iran's supreme leader, wrote an editorial Oct. 5 criticizing government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht for supposedly trying to downplay the comments made by the German minister. In this vein, Kayhan resorted to irony and asked whether Nobakht is the spokesman of the Iranian or the German government.

Of note, an op-ed published in Reformist newspaper Arman Oct. 5 embraced Zarif's decision to cancel the meeting with Gabriel amid the escalated atmosphere in the media and wrote, "The loss of the meeting between the Iranian foreign minister and the German economy minister was not a diplomatic punishment — but a smart diplomatic move. It was a maneuver by the government to respond amid the domestic, regional and international political atmosphere."