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Germany wasted no time becoming the first Western power to send a trade delegation to Iran. It was just the other day that world powers including Germany reached a nuclear agreement that included lifting economic sanctions on Iran. The sending of the trade delegation shows that business leaders are not blind to the implications. From Berlin, Esme Nicholson has the story.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Commercial ties between Germany and Iran have been strong since the 19th century. German firms helped build Iran's railways, and in the 1970s, Iran was Germany's biggest export partner after Europe and the U.S. It's no surprise, then, that Germany sent Sigmar Gabriel, its economy minister and vice chancellor, with a delegation of top industrial leaders to Tehran only five days after the ink had dried on the Vienna agreement. Gabriel spoke to German public television from Iran.
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SIGMAR GABRIEL: (Through interpreter) We are now duty-bound to show Iran that the nuclear deal with the West was worth it.
NICHOLSON: Volker Treier of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry is just back from his own trip to Tehran.
VOLKER TREIER: It's, on the one hand, a signal to our companies that they are no longer stigmatized if they do want to do business with Iranian partners. And on the other hand, it's even more than a signal to the Iranian partners that we do want to offer provision of technologies made in Germany.
NICHOLSON: Treier says that since the trade embargo, German exports to Iran have dropped from 5 billion to 2.4 billion euros a year. But he is confident Germany can restore its pre-sanctions exports over the next few years. But for all the excitement about EU sanctions being lifted, Treier says U.S. banking restrictions remain a major obstacle.
TREIER: As long as the sanctions are in place, there won't be new contracts regarding business of German multinationals with Iranian partners because they don't want to threaten their own business.
NICHOLSON: Although Treier is optimistic that such barriers will be lifted soon, the German press is less dazzled by the economy minister's trip to Tehran. The right-of-center Die Welt dubbed Gabriel's courting of Iranian leaders as unfettered naivete and the center-left broadsheet Suddeutsche Zeitung described it as embarrassing. The conservative tabloid Bild took issue with both the timing and the message of the visit. Julian Reichelt is the editor-in-chief of Bild Online.
JULIAN REICHELT: From what I hear from within the German administration, people were not too happy with the wording he used visiting Tehran. He said it's like being with old friends like nothing has happened in the past 15 years. We are not at the point to call this regime our friends.
NICHOLSON: And Gabriel's words have not only aggrieved the administration, they've angered the opposition. Niema Movassat is a member of the Left Party in the Bundestag.
NIEMA MOVASSAT: (Through interpreter) The government cannot neglect the human rights situation in Iran. The West always talks about human rights, but when it comes to business, they are conveniently overlooked.
NICHOLSON: Julian Reichelt says that the government seems to have forgotten that the Vienna deal was not about business but about international security.
REICHELT: I certainly would've preferred to see a delegation going to Tehran that is not so business-focused in the beginning because it clearly now gives the impression that the whole nuclear agreement from Vienna basically was an agreement to reinstate German-Iranian business.
NICHOLSON: One issue everybody agrees on here is the importance of maintaining Israel's security. Convincing its close Israeli allies of that might prove more of a challenge for Germany than dealing with the U.S. banking regulations that still restrict its transactions with Iran. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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