The lifting of international sanctions on Iran has triggered a stampede of European companies beating a path to Tehran to secure contracts, but some of the equipment being offered has dark, dual purposes in the hands of the Islamic Republic’s oppressive government.
The cranes made by Austrian manufacturer Palfinger could be used to transform Tehran’s skyline, but also have played a starring role in Iran’s infamous public executions, where convicted criminals are often hanged from the giant booms high above public squares. German company Herrenknecht, whose senior officials visited the Iranian capital last month, makes industrial drilling rigs critics say could be used to nestle nuclear facilities deep inside mountains. Other companies lining up to do business with the mullahs make equipment that also could be used against Iran’s enemies – or its populace.
“It reminds me of the economy and the industry of the Third Reich,” said Ariel Muzicant, vice president of Europe’s Jewish Congress.
“I am glad to help you with my tunnel boring machines.”
Palfinger gained widespread notoriety after one of its cranes, identifiable by the company name and logo, was shown in a widely-distributed photo by award-winning photographer Ebrahim Noroozi hoisting the lifeless body of a condemned man. The graphic picture, coupled with company CEO Herbert Ortner’s remark to the Austria Press Agency that Iran is a “promising market,” with strong demand for cranes and no domestic competition, generated debate in Europe.
”Palfinger is one example, which clearly shows, that Austrian companies do not care at all about the disastrous human rights situation when it comes to doing business in Iran,” Stefan Schaden, spokesman for the Vienna-based activist group Stop the Bomb, told FoxNews.com. “In fact they support the regime and its inhuman policies as long as it serves their profit interests.”
Stop the Bomb, an organization devoted to preventing an Iranian nuclear program and improving human rights in its Islamic Sharia law controlled-society, launched a campaign to bar Palfinger from re-entering the market.
Palfinger spokesman Hannes Roither told FoxNews.com that despite Ortner’s comment, the company is not seeking to do business in Iran. He said the crane in the infamous picture was built 27 years ago in Iran under a since-canceled licensing deal.
“We don’t have any plans to sell cranes in Iran,” Roither said, adding, “if the human rights situation changes in Iran, there will be new considerations.”
Even if Palfinger has no interest in tapping the Iranian market, others certainly do. Austrian President Heinz Fischer is slated to visit Iran next month, with a delegation that will include foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, economy minister Reinhold Mitterlehner,and the head of the Austrian chamber of commerce, Christoph Leitl.
Martin Herrenknecht, founder of the German firm which boasts its “state of-the-art deep drilling rigs drill down to a depth of 6,000 meters,” was in Iran last month to generate business.
“I am glad to help you with my tunnel boring machines,” Herrenknecht told the mayor of Isfahan, according to a German news report.
Heavy-earth moving equipment could be used by Iran for nefarious purposes, such as Iran’s infamously hidden illegal nuclear site Fordow, buried deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
But Iran’s misuse of European technology is not limited to heavy construction machines. In 2008, the then-joint Finnish-Germany venture Nokia-Siemens sold Iran’s regime sophisticated surveillance equipment. After Iranian protesters flooded the streets in the 2009 “Green Revolution” to denounce the country’s fraudulent presidential election, Iran’s regime used the monitoring technology to disrupt Internet, Twitter and mobile communications among demonstrators.
In response to the Nokia-Siemens deal with Iran, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced in 2009 legislation to punish foreign companies that sell high-tech goods to Iran by shutting them out of U.S government contracts. Both senators oppose President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
Siemens was represented last month during a business delegation trip with Germany’s economic minister and vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel in Tehran. According to a Tuesday Persian-language report in Iran’s state-controlled Mehr news, an Iranian information technology official announced a joint-project with an unnamed “foreign company” to start phase two of a “targeted filtering” program that is designed “towards [censoring] websites and networks that have social harm.”
Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, told FoxNews.com he welcomed the “implications posed by sanctions relief and Iran’s economic reintegration into the global financial system.”
However, he also warned that “the human rights situation in Iran is deeply concerning and it is integral that all stakeholders, including investors and businesses, work to avoid contributing to human rights harm in this difficult context.”
Some European leaders and activists believe companies should self-impose a boycott of deals with the hard line Tehran government.
“Germany should not sell security technology to dictatorships like Iran, Saudi Arabia or Russia,” said Volker Beck, a Green Party leader from Germany. “And goods should not be exported which can be used there for torture or the implementation of the death penalty.”
From the view of Iranian dissidents, the revival of commercial deals with Iran’s regime is a setback for democracy.
"Conducting business with the Iranian regime is a stab in the back of the Iranian opposition,” said Hiwa Bahrami, who represents the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in Austria and Germany. “The terror against the Iranian population will not decrease, but increase.”
He noted that hopes the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would usher in a more moderate era than that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have gone unrealized, as executions have soared in the last two years.
Still, European business and political delegations continue to flock to Iran. Last week, Italy’s foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni was in Tehran on Wednesday. He sai
“In addition to political co-operation, our two countries can work together in the fields of trade, commerce and economy," Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said last week while in Tehran, where he announced that Italy provided Iran a $3 billion line of credit.
An Iranian regime spokesman, Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht, said a result of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius’ recent visit could lead to France selling French-made Mirage warplanes to Iran. A French business delegation of nearly 100 French company executives will visit Tehran next month.
After robust sanctions were imposed on Iran in 2011-2012, trade plummeted to under $10 billion. Given the European gold rush into Iran, bi-lateral trade between Europe and Iran could rapidly reach levels approaching $30 billion, according to analysts.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal