The Holland Bureau: The perils of engagement

Giles Scott-Smith of the Holland Bureau looks at the relationship between the Netherlands and Iran, in the light of an invite to an embassy reception and Wikileaks disclosures.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation for a reception at the Iranian Embassy in The Hague. Unusual, to put it mildly. Since the Ahmadinejad regime came along, cultural outreach from the Iranians has been somewhat limited. Being a diplomat of a pariah regime can’t be an easy business.
My initial reaction was positive – I generally have no problem in establishing dialogue with those who seek it. And there is obviously some curiosity involved to see how the Iranians might go about such an event. And – what is on everyone’s mind in this kind of situation – the urge to see who else would show up.
Yet there was a major catch that made me uneasy. The reception wasn’t called for the Ambassador’s birthday or something fairly neutral, but to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Now, I am pretty open to different viewpoints.
I invited the Cuban Ambassador to give a lecture to students a couple of years ago, and he did, with some style (main security threat to Cuba, according to him? The fall-out from drug flights coming up from Latin America towards the US market). But the Iranian Revolution?
A lot of people have died in recent years at the hands of an Iranian state determined to preserve their power in the name of that very Revolution. The violent police clamp-down following the presidential elections in June 2009 , which have temporarily flattened any hope of change, is still lingering. With all my interest in cultural diplomacy, I have no wish to support any of that.
On top of all this has come the case of Zahra Bahrami, the Dutch-Iranian executed on 29 January. Arrested in December 2009 for drug possession, the participation of Bahrami in the post-election demo’s also points to her being singled out as a ‘threat to the state.’ The status of her double nationality was rejected by Ahmadinejad himself. On 5 January she was sentenced to death.
The case has caused the Dutch ambassador to be recalled from Teheran and brought bilateral relations to a halt. Uri Rosenthal faced criticism from the entire Parliament last Friday after the execution was carried out, and he admitted, somewhat grudgingly, that more could have been done to save her. As far as is known, neither Rosenthal nor Rutte sought direct contact with their Iranian counterparts to try and intervene.
An attempt by D66 to mobilise support within the European Parliament last year was the most visible response. According to a lawyer connected to the case, reported through a human rights NGO, the speed with which the execution was carried out almost certainly has to do with the fact that there was insufficient (or falsified) evidence and there was no desire on the part of the regime to have any kind of an open process.
On Friday 28 January the Iranian Ambassador in The Hague had even reported to Rosenthal that the case was still not decided: “All legal means are not yet exhausted.” Yet a day later the Ambassador instead confirmed the complete opposite.
The reaction of the Iranian Embassy since suggests that they want to avoid major fall-out. The case should not affect bilateral relations, is the message. Zahrami was treated properly by the legal system, and regrets were expressed that ‘an iranian citizen committed a crime which resulted in the death sentence.’’ The insistence that she was Iranian indicates that for Teheran the Dutch government actually has no say in the matter. The Dutch Ambassador in Teheran also received an explanation of Iranian drug policy, as if that was sufficient to explain the whole case.
But whatever the initial thoughts of Rosenthal, the political response in The Hague has ensured that relations should not remain as normal. The breaking of diplomatic contact means the Iranian Ambassador and his staff have restricted travel rights in the Netherlands and must seek written permission for any contact with Dutch government officials.
Some have been prompted to make imaginative suggestions in this situation: Joël Voordewind (Christen Unie), for instance, proposed that with major public spending cuts in the offing a slice could be made by simply slosing the Dutch Embassy in Teheran. The Netherlands Iran Committee , a strong opponent of the current Iranian regime, fully agrees and goes further by proposing to rename the street on which the Iranian Embassy is situated Zahra Bahramilaan.
The case illustrates the dangers faced once again by Dutch-Iranians or indeed any Iranians with two passports who run the risk of deep suspicion from the Ahmadinejad regime if they visit the country. It also puts into starker perspective the economic links between the netherlands and Iran that have surfaced via Wikileaks in recent weeks.
While Shell’s interest in Iranian oil and gas fields is the major example, there have been other more specific cases, such as concerning the apparent sale of Dutch technology for Iranian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in 2005 and again in 2006. Dutch banks ABN AMRO and ING divested themselves of Iranian investments and accounts in 2007, under guidance from US advice in the context of UN sanctions against the Iranian nuclear programme.
Yet the interest of Dutch business in UAV sales continued, for instance from Inter Connection Technologies and Aviation Services International. Then there was the export ot Tritium gas in December 2007 – against IAEA regulations. And Credit Europe Bank’s continuing Iranian transactions were defended by Dutch government officials against US pressure in 2008, under the guise that these transactions were known and were being monitored. And UAV related trade continued, this time by AMT Netherlands, into 2009.
UAVs, Tritium, and Banking – quite a list. And in the background all the time are the interests of Shell. Here is John Crocker, Head of the compant’s International Government Relations, in 2009:
“–Double Standard for China: Crocker said Shell was dismayed by the lack of US government criticism of China after Sinopec signed its 2007 deal with Iran to develop the Yadaravan field. According to Crocker, this underscored Shell executives’ fear that western IOCs will get shut out of Iran long-term to the benefit of Chinese, Russian and even Indian firms who disregard American and European pressure and make lucrative investments in Iran’s energy sector with impunity. He claimed that Tehran was crawling with Chinese eager to do business with Iran.”
And the US Embassy’s reply:
“In our dialogue with the Dutch government and private sector on finance and trade measures to combat Iran’s nuclear activities, they express frustration that international sanctions are only as strong as their weakest link, i.e., Russia, the Gulf states, and — especially — China. The Dutch think they are doing their fair share to implement sanctions effectively (and they see far higher trade volumes with Iran coming from Germany, Italy, and France).”
Its a difficult game. One wonders what really is at stake if Dutch-Iranian relations truly get frozen. Needless to say, in these circumstances it would be all the more interesting to see who the company would be at the Iranian Ambassador’s reception. But I won’t be there.

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