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Iran: Khatami's Visit Aims For Economic Ties

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami begins a three-day visit to France today -- only his second to an EU country since taking office. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel reports on what the two sides are expected to discuss.

Prague, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- President Mohammad Khatami's visit to France comes as a resumption of his government's slow but deliberate progress over the last two years in opening Iran to Europe.

That progress reached a symbolic highwater-mark in March when Khatami visited Rome, becoming the first Iranian head of state to visit a Western capital in 20 years. But his plans then to continue soon after to France were derailed by a diplomatic squabble over French insistence that wine be served at a state dinner.

That disagreement has now been sidestepped by the decision to waive state functions and both sides appear ready to focus on the agenda of subjects which really matter to them.

But the question of how much they can agree on -- or learn to cooperatively disagree on -- still remains open.

Preparing for the visit, Iranian government officials have repeatedly stressed that they want better economic ties with the European Union. Tehran wants greater foreign investment to help revive an economy which is suffering from low productivity and high unemployment. Its economy was hard hit by the recently reversed worldwide slump in oil prices. The economy is unable to provide enough jobs for the large numbers of young people currently entering the workforce.

Paris, and most other EU capitals, also want closer economic ties with Tehran. Olivier Roy, a regional expert at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Study) in Paris, told RFE/RL by phone why Iran is an attractive trade opportunity for France:

"Economic relations are focused on several very precise sectors. The car industry, the oil industry, and the purchase of agricultural food products from France. France is about the sixth or seventh-ranked economic partner of Iran after Germany, Japan, and Italy."

Roy says the most important of those sectors for future growth is energy. French energy companies like giants Total and Gulf-Aquitaine have already signaled their readiness to ignore a continuing U.S. embargo on Iran by signing deals to develop Iranian oilfields.

One example of what both sides would like to see more of came on the very eve of the start of Khatami's. A major French engineering group, Alstom, announced a contract from Iran's state railway company to provide 100 diesel locomotives worth some $200 million. Eighty of the locomotives are to be produced in Iran.

But even as Iranian and French leaders see broad horizons for trade, both also face political constraints. The EU countries remain concerned by the Islamic Republic's human rights record and Paris has insisted ahead of Khatami's visit on raising several delicate issues.

These include the death sentences handed down against two students charged with being the main instigators of July's unrest in Iran and the arrest of 13 Jews charged with spying for Israel.

Roy says that the case of the 13 Jews is particularly sensitive in France at this moment.

"There is strong public opinion pressure [on Paris] over the issue of the Iranian Jews. I would say this is the first time that a question of human rights [in Iran] affects public opinion in France."

But Roy says he does not expect top French officials to press Khatami closely over these issues during their personal meetings. He says one reason is that Paris believes the case of the 13 Jews is part of the ongoing contest between reformers and conservatives in Iran and that it will ultimately be resolved satisfactorily.

"It is an affair which has both internal and international dimensions [because] Iran's judiciary, which is independent and dominated by conservatives, uses legal cases to influence the government's foreign policy. We have already seen that with the arrest of the German citizen Hofer. And many people think the case [of the 13 Jews] will be resolved in much the same way as the Hofer case, that is, by a judicial process which ends, finally, in a compromise."

The case of the German citizen, Helmut Hofer, has moved from initial threats of the death penalty on charges of illicit sexual relations to lighter and vaguer charges of contacts with foreign organizations. He is widely expected to be released under continuing pressure from Germany.

Roy says that when France expresses concerns over human rights during Khatami's visit, it will be what he calls a ritual exercise and will not affect future economic cooperation.

"I would have to say there is a ritual aspect in [France's] bringing up human rights issues, no matter who is the other party. We just saw that with China, for example, where human rights issues were mentioned but it means very little on the economic level. President Khatami is already seen in France as a defender of human rights ... so, in this sense, Paris has no desire to embarrass President Khatami because, in a certain way, Khatami has won its confidence."

But if French officials are not eager to press President Khatami over human rights, several private groups are. Various human rights groups as well as France's main Jewish organization and Iranian exiles plan demonstrations during the visit.

Khatami is set to meet French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac today. He initially was due to address the general assembly of UNESCO tomorrow but Tehran today canceled the appearance without giving a reason. Khatami will meet with French business leaders on Friday.