The energy deal that Swiss energy utility company EGL signed with Iran last week has triggered criticism both inside and outside the Alpine nation. Outside Switzerland, the most forceful complaints came from the U.S. and Israel–coming as it did barely two weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 1803 was passed, it clearly sent the wrong signal to Tehran. Europeans are not giving due weight to the strategic worries behind the new round of sanctions and prefer to increase their dependence on Iranian energy than add pressure on Tehran.
Inside Switzerland, though, the criticism focused more on the outfit chosen for the occasion by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was in Tehran to witness the signature alongside her Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki. Swiss politicians were outraged by the fact that Calmy-Rey –a longtime advocate of women’s rights–chose to wear a veil and appear “submissive.” Many of her crticis later recognized she had no choice. This brings up a further question, though: why is submissiveness necessary to deal with Iran?
A look at European energy options might offer an answer: Europe’s main natural gas suppliers is Russia. Tehran, with its readiness to welcome foreign energy companies for joint ventures, is an ideal alternative. It sits on the second-biggest known reserves of natural gas in the world and, unlike other Middle Eastern countries, is willing to share profits in exchange for the technology and investments needed to develop its vastly undertapped resources.
Of course, the trade-off–quite apart from the obvious implications for the sanctions’ regime and the ability of the West to put pressure on Iran– is that Iran’s regime benefits from access to Western technology. But it may be recalled that earlier this year Turkmenistan shut off its gas supply to Tehran–a move that caused severe gas shortages inside Iran in the middle of an unusually harsh winter. Iran, in other words, despite its giant gas fields, is a net importer of gas and is thus vulnerable to external pressure. Selling Iran technology and joining its national gas and oil companies to develop its energy resources will help Iran become a net exporter and will make its regime’s economic and political fortune. Deals like the one signed by EGL, in other words, prolong this regime’s shelf life and all that comes with it, nuclear ambitions included.
Europe’s economic engagement with Iran, especially in light of Russia’s stricter oil policies, makes sense. Except for Iran’s nuclear program and the spoiling role it plays in just about every crisis Europe wishes to solve in the Middle East. The answer to the above dilemma is long term and demands. For the time being, European temptation by Iranian oil must be understood within this context: Europe is not yet in a strong enough position to forego such deals. In this sense, Swiss politicians were right to call Calmy-Rey’s choice of the veil submissive. Submissiveness might be the only option Europe has in this situation, unless Iran’s behavior–and its regime–can be changed.