A couple of months ago I reported that Iran and Hungary were on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation. The lack of transparency of the Orbán government is such that the Hungarian public learns about deals between Budapest and countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. from foreign sources. This was also the case with the Iranian-Hungarian “declaration of intent” regarding nuclear cooperation that was signed by the two countries on April 8 in Tehran.
Cozy relations between Iran and Hungary began with a visit of Viktor Orbán to Tehran in late November 2015 and continued in February 2016 with negotiations on a joint project to develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. In November László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent a whole week in Iran where he praised Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services” and promised Hungary’s support of Iran’s fight against terrorism. In order “to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures,” Hungary’s Eximbank extended an 85 million euro line of credit to Iran.
The news that Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister, had signed such an agreement stunned the government-critical media as well as the opposition. After all, it was only in January 2016 that sanctions against Iran, because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, were lifted. It also seemed to be out of character for the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian laws on the books. Moreover, if the Orbán government expects better treatment at the hand of the Trump White House, making a nuclear deal with Iran is not the best way to curry favor. It is a well-known fact that Donald Trump eyes the Iranian regime with even greater suspicion than his predecessor did and until very recently was ready to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 altogether.
The timing of the signing was also unfortunate. The agreement between Iran and Hungary took place on the very same day, April 8, that Russia notified the United States that it was suspending a communication hotline between Moscow and the Pentagon following a U.S. air strike on the Shayrat airfield. Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the government in the Syrian civil war. At the time of the signing of the Iranian-Hungarian agreement, Iran was considering the deployment of ground forces “to counter U.S. intervention in Syria.” Iran and the United States are also on a collision course in Yemen. Only a couple of months earlier, in February, Trump said that “nothing is off the table” in dealing with Iran. In addition, at about the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 people and 12 entities under the U.S. Iran sanctions authority. As Csaba Káncz, whose articles on foreign affairs appear regularly on Privatbankar.hu, said, the Hungarian “government poked its nose into the mid-eastern powder-keg,” which is not the wisest move in these fluid circumstances. In any case, if Viktor Orbán seriously wants to develop good relations with the Trump administration, the road to that goal is certainly not through Tehran.
A month later, on May 6, Zsolt Semjén showed up in Belgrade, where he met Iran’s ambassador to Budapest, Gholamali Rajabi Yazdi. Of course, Hungarians learned about this meeting from an Iranian source, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Why these two men had to meet in Belgrade is a puzzle in and of itself. Otherwise, IRNA’s description of the topics discussed sounded innocent enough. “Semjén called for the enhancement of cooperation between the Iranian and Hungarian cities of Tehran and Budapest, Shiraz and Pécs, and Yazd and Jászberény.” As for increased economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, he expressed his hope that stronger banking relations between Hungary and Iran would bolster trade between them.
Meanwhile, Bernadett Szél (LMP), a tenacious opponent of nuclear energy and the construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant, demanded the release of the agreement’s text on nuclear cooperation signed in April. Since it is only a “declaration of intent,” little can be learned about specifics from the text, but the emphasis is on education, training and research, and the free flow of information between the parties. There is, however, mention of “joint investment projects” related to nuclear energy. It is also likely that the Orbán government wants to use EU funds for some of these joint projects because the “declaration of intent” states that “the Parties shall endeavor to use the funds set up by the European Union for nuclear safety cooperation between the European Union and Iran within the framework of this Declaration of Intent.”
What truly worries people who are distrustful of Iran’s intention is that the “declaration of intent,” although it talks only about the peaceful use of nuclear power, doesn’t contain any guarantee that Iran will actually use whatever information it receives from the Hungarians for peaceful purposes. There is no bilateral monitoring or international mechanism mentioned in the document. The likely scenario is that Iranian nuclear experts and students will come to Hungary to work together on the development of the 25-watt mini-reactor. And then, critics ask, what will happen to the nuclear waste produced in the process? LMP politicians find the “the deal extremely risky.” Moreover, they don’t quite understand why Hungary has to get involved in any kind of cooperation with Iran “in the field of nuclear energy.”
Meanwhile, Iranian-U.S. relations are going from bad to worse. A few days ago the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile development, arms transfers, support for Islamist militant groups, and human rights violations. To become law, the measure must pass the Republican-led House of Representatives and be signed by Donald Trump which, I think, can be taken for granted. I should also mention that Iran, perhaps not without reason, considers Trump’s response to the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran “repugnant.” Trump said that “we grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times.” However, he added, “we underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
Given the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and Israel and its antagonism toward Iran, it is indeed difficult to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he signs nuclear deals, however innocent the “declaration of intent” may sound, with the Iran of the ayatollahs. Has he already decided that pursuing a U.S.-friendly policy, even with Trump in power, is a fool’s errand?