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Jewish Group Slams Swiss-Iran Gas Deal; U.S. Questions Switzerland's Neutrality

The World Jewish Congress criticized Switzerland on Monday for participating in a gas deal with Iran that it condemned as a propaganda triumph for Tehran's hard-liners.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey traveled to Iran in mid-March to sign a deal between the Swiss energy trading company EGL and state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Company that is worth $28 billion to $42 billion.

Photos of the March 17 signing ceremony with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked a furor in Switzerland, where the nationalist People's Party has campaigned behind an image of a smiling Calmy-Rey in a white head scarf seated below a picture of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"It became clear immediately that the visit by the Swiss foreign minister was a propagandistic triumph for the mullahs," WJC President Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics magnate, wrote in a statement.

Lauder criticized People's Party leader Christoph Blocher for tainting the Swiss image with his isolationist policies — and damned Calmy-Rey, a Social Democrat, for having "sold out her government's international credibility" in return for 194 billion cubic feet of Iranian natural gas.

His statement comes a day after the United States said it has demanded to see if the 25-year gas contract violates American sanctions law against Tehran.

The U.S. Embassy, in a posting to its Web site, questioned whether neutral Switzerland's position as representative of American interests in Iran and Cuba could be affected.

The Swiss have represented U.S. interests in Havana since breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba nearly 50 years ago, and in Tehran since Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry declined to comment Monday on the embassy's comment.

Washington, which already has objected to the deal as a violation of the spirit of U.N. sanctions against Iran, has made a formal request to see the contract, the U.S. Embassy said.

Spokeswoman Lisbeth Keefe said Washington originally asked to see the contract last year, long before the signing. The Swiss have yet to produce the contract, the embassy said.

The embassy reiterated that the U.S. had told the Swiss "that major new oil and gas deals with Iran send precisely the wrong message" to Tehran when it is defying U.N. Security Council resolutions over its uranium enrichment program.

The Iranian government says it only wants to produce electricity for peaceful uses, rejecting U.S. and Israeli accusations that it wants to develop nuclear weapons.

Calmy-Rey has said the contract is in line with Switzerland's rights as an independent country with its own strategic interests to defend.

EGL plans to sell the gas to European customers that rely heavily on natural gas from Russia — which in the past has used its monopoly to exert political pressure on its neighbors.

EGL, majority owned by Axpo Holding AG, has said gas deliveries from Iran will begin in 2009.