On November 16 I happened upon an article in Magyar Nemzet that surprised me greatly. It announced the presence of Ali Ahani, deputy foreign minister of Iran, in Hungary. Magyar Nemzet learned about his visit from an Iranian source. MTI, the Hungarian news agency, reported the official visit of Ahani only the next day. It looked as if the Hungarian Foreign Ministry wasn't too keen on advertising the Iranian diplomat's presence.
Subsequently it became clear that Ali Ahani is in charge of Iran's foreign relations with the European Union and that his trip to Budapest was not part and parcel of a European tour. He came only to talk with the Hungarians. His visit served, it seems to me, the purpose of building bridges to the European Union through Hungary.
Magyar Nemzet 's article was based on information provided by the Iranian news agency, which by itself is strange. According to Iranian sources Ali Ahani met János Martonyi on Tuesday and during the course of the conversation the Hungarian foreign minister emphasized that Hungary supports Iran's right to obtain and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Martonyi apparently also assured the Iranian deputy foreign minister that Hungary will do everything in its power to speed up and strengthen the negotiation process between Iran and the West.
While in Budapest Ali Ahani gave a lecture at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and subsequently a press conference (by which point MTI finally reported on his presence). He announced that it was high time to renew economic relations between the two countries but that cultural and scientific relations should also be revived. He saw no obstacles to building a close relationship between the two countries now that there is a new government in power. In the past Hungary neglected Iran and concentrated too much on Europe. He complained about the European Union's attitude toward Iran and expressed his hope that Hungary's EU rotating presidency in the next six months will make a difference. He added that even a small country can be a big player in world affairs.
As for the Iranian-Hungarian trade relations. Once upon a time there was $400 million worth of trade between the two countries, but in the last eight years it shrank to $40 million because Hungary concentrated only on the European Union. He expressed his satisfaction that Hungary after the elections took steps toward the revival of bilateral relations. So, the initiative came from Budapest. For example, he mentioned the Iranian-Hungarian Friendship Group that was formed by a number of Hungarian MPs. Ali Ahani met with members of this group and added that a similar friendship group came into being in Teheran.
In case my readers are surprised about this development, I should mention that the first Orbán government also had rather close relations with Iran. A Hungarian-Iranian friendship group came into being during the summer of 2000 in Teheran and in December 2000 a similar group was formed in Budapest. The Orbán government's interest in Iran was underscored by a visit paid by János Martonyi to Teheran in 2001. It seems that the second Orbán government has renewed its interest in Iran. If one can believe the Iranian sources, Hungary even promised to be a bridge between Iran and the European Union. Ahani also announced that high-level visits are being planned in the near future.
Ali Ahani gave an interview to Népszabadság in which he was more open about Iranian-Hungarian relations past and present. He was very critical of the foreign policy of the European Union which Iran "cannot consider to be positive." The decisions of the European Union are not Europe's own but are influenced by the United States, and that state of affairs is "simply not worthy of Europe." Iran is hoping that after the structural changes due to the Lisbon Agreement the European Union will be able to conduct an independent foreign policy. Yet there are many uncertainties even in the new EU structure. It is not clear what the responsibility of the rotating presidencies will be; the role of the "foreign minister" of the Union, Catherine Ashton, is also unclear.
According to Ahani, since the formation of the new Hungarian government there have been many hopeful signs, and it seems that Hungarian diplomats will take stock of the possibilities for future cooperation. Otherwise he forcefully denied that Jobbik received financial assistance from the Iranian government. Just because Jobbik agrees with Iran's policies their political opponents immediately accuse them of financial dependence. Of course, what was not mentioned in the interview is that Jobbik is enamored with Iran mostly because of the latter's anti-Israeli rhetoric.
Then at last the Hungarian Foreign Ministry released a very brief communiqué which is worth quoting in full: "Between November 15 and 17 Ali Ahani, the deputy foreign minister in charge of European affairs of the Iranian Islamic Republic, visited Budapest. János Martonyi received him in the form of a courtesy call during which they talked about the position of Iran and the international expectations toward it. They did mention the possibilities of widening bilateral relations. The Iranian deputy foreign minister consulted with his partners, János Hóvári, deputy undersecretary, and Péter Sztáray, political director, concerning bilateral relations and other international questions."
Well, well. What a carefully formulated understatement. A courtesy call? But it is clear that the Iranian diplomat purposely came to Budapest at the invitation of János Martonyi. He didn't just drop in for a courtesy call. And surely, according to all reports, the two men didn't just talk about the position of Iran and the international expectations toward it. It seems that Hungary offered its good offices to Iran in mending relations between the European Union and Iran.
If I were Hungary I would tread lightly here. Although the European Union is Iran's largest trading partner, the political differences between them are considerable. Moreover, the European Union is steadfastly against Iran's nuclear ambitions. We will just have to keep our eyes open. In any case, I don't think that Hungary, rotating presidency or not, will be able to influence the attitude of either the EU or the United States when it comes to their assessment of Iran.