As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.
Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.
In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”
On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.
These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.
LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”
More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.
We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.