Iranian parliament speaker snubs German minister on visit

TEHRAN (Reuters) - The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, canceled talks with German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel in Tehran on Tuesday after the high-profile visitor had urged Iran to pursue reforms at home and act responsibly in Syria.

Larijani, seen as a moderate conservative in Iran, was the highest-ranking figure Gabriel was due to meet on his two-day trip, aimed at boosting trade ties after Tehran’s landmark deal with world powers to scale back its nuclear program.

No reason was given for the cancellation, a spokeswoman for Gabriel said.

Gabriel had on Monday backed reforms pursued by President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who faces resistance from influential conservatives, saying: “The alternative to the current government is a return to the times of great confrontation.”

He also said Iran, which provides economic and military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, should help push for a ceasefire in Syria’s civil war, adding: “I think Iran knows its responsibility there.”

Sadeq Larijani, brother of the parliament speaker and head of Iran’s judiciary, criticized Gabriel on Monday for his comments. “If I were in the government’s position or in the foreign minister’s shoes I would never let such a person come to Iran,” he said.

The apparent snub to Gabriel highlighted the challenge facing Western governments as they try to cultivate ties with Iran’s political leadership, divided between moderates and hardliners, and seek to position their companies for lucrative new business deals.

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Touching another sensitive nerve, Gabriel was quoted as telling German news magazine Der Spiegel last week that Iran could have normal, friendly relations with Germany only when it accepted Israel’s right to exist.

Iran’s government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht said on Tuesday: “No country can set preconditions for Iran. We live with our beliefs. Tehran will never recognize Israel.”

Gabriel told reporters on the plane back to Germany that the cancellation of the meeting with Larijani was prompted by Iran’s domestic politics.

“It is part of the internal Iranian election campaign,” he said, referring to next year’s presidential contest. “I felt appropriately received, particularly during the talks with the vice president (Eshaq Jahangiri).”

Gabriel said Germany wanted to help improve the economic lot of people in Iran so that the government did not lose support.

The minister was accompanied by a delegation of business executives seeking deals after last year’s historic nuclear accord, which paved the way for ending sanctions that had been in place for years. On Monday, Siemens signed a contract to upgrade Iran’s rail network.

The president of Germany’s DIHK Chambers of Commerce said the trip had marked an important step forward. “Now confidence must be built up,” Eric Schweitzer, part of the delegation, told Reuters, adding the trip had undoubtedly helped with that.

Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan