TEHRAN (FNA)- Switzerland and Iran signed a huge deal on Monday for the supply of Iranian natural gas to Europe, sparking harsh criticism from the United States.
Experts said the deal, worth an estimated 20 billion Euros, may signal a renewed willingness by European companies to do business with Iran in the wake of a US National Intelligence Estimate that essentially eliminated the possibility of an American military strike on Iran.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf, attended the signing ceremony in Tehran. She said the deal was needed to diversify Switzerland’s energy sources and lower its dependence on Russian gas.
Under the agreement – signed by National Iranian Gas Company and the Swiss firm EGL, which is indirectly owned by Switzerland’s cantons – Iran will supply Switzerland with 5.5 billion tons of gas a year for 25 years, starting in 2011. The gas is slated to be sent via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which is to be built in future.
An EGL spokesman said that the agreement “does not contravene the [United Nations] sanctions [against Tehran], since we aren’t investing in Iran.” He also noted that other European gas firms are considering buying from Iran as well – an apparent reference to Austria’s OMV, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran last year to purchase gas worth 20 billion Euros. That deal must still be finalized.
Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, who heads the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute, said the Swiss deal was “a direct result of the American National Intelligence Estimate.”
“The report’s publication changed the trend in Europe,” he said. “For the past year, most European companies have been in waiting mode. They checked details, examined possibilities, but refrained from finalizing commitments. But following the report, the business perception changed and the pressure on Iran was lifted. If a respected country such as Switzerland, which cares about its international status, is ready to travel to Tehran to sign an agreement, what will other countries think? What will other international corporations think?”
The American embassy in Bern published a statement on Monday denouncing the deal, saying it sent precisely the wrong message at a time when Iran continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to give up its right of uranium enrichment.
A Swiss journalist who covered the deal, who requested anonymity, told Haaretz that the US had tried repeatedly to stop it, but “Switzerland feels that it is backed by the European Union, and by the real needs of its residents.”
The US is at loggerheads with Iran over Tehran’s independent and home-grown nuclear technology. Washington has laid much pressure on Iran to make it give up the most sensitive and advanced part of the technology, which is uranium enrichment, a process used for producing nuclear fuel for power plants.
Washington’s push for additional UN penalties contradicted the recent report by 16 US intelligence bodies that endorsed the civilian nature of Iran’s programs. Following the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and similar reports by the IAEA head – one in November and the other one on Friday – which praised Iran’s truthfulness about key aspects of its past nuclear activities and announced settlement of outstanding issues with Tehran, any effort to impose further sanctions on Iran seemed to be completely irrational.
The February report by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, praised Iran’s cooperation in clearing up all of the past questions over its nuclear program, vindicating Iran’s nuclear program and leaving no justification for any new UN sanctions.
Tehran says it never worked on atomic weapons and wants to enrich uranium merely for civilian purposes, including generation of electricity, a claim substantiated by the NIE and IAEA reports.
Iran has insisted it would continue enriching uranium because it needs to provide fuel to a 300-megawatt light-water reactor it is building in the southwestern town of Darkhovin as well as its first nuclear power plant in the southern port city of Bushehr.
Not only many Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also many other world nations have called the UN Security Council pressure unjustified, especially in the wake of recent IAEA reports saying Iran had increased cooperation with the agency.
US President George W. Bush, who finished a tour of the Middle East last month has called on his Arab allies to unite against Iran.
But hosting officials of the regional nations dismissed Bush’s allegations, describing Tehran as a good friend of their countries.
Bush’s attempt to rally international pressure against Iran has lost steam due to the growing international vigilance, specially following the latest IAEA and US intelligence reports.