Hungary’s relation to Iran: A new chapter?

On November 16 I happened upon an article in Magyar Nemzet that surprised me greatly. It announced the presence of Ali Ahani, deputy foreign minister of Iran, in Hungary. Magyar Nemzet learned about his visit from an Iranian source. MTI, the Hungarian news agency, reported the official visit of Ahani only the next day. It looked as if the Hungarian Foreign Ministry wasn't too keen on advertising the Iranian diplomat's presence.

Subsequently it became clear that Ali Ahani is in charge of Iran's foreign relations with the European Union and that his trip to Budapest was not part and parcel of a European tour. He came only to talk with the Hungarians. His visit served, it seems to me, the purpose of building bridges to the European Union through Hungary.

Magyar Nemzet 's article was based on information provided by the Iranian news agency, which by itself is strange. According to Iranian sources Ali Ahani met János Martonyi on Tuesday and during the course of the conversation the Hungarian foreign minister emphasized that Hungary supports Iran's right to obtain and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Martonyi apparently also assured the Iranian deputy foreign minister that Hungary will do everything in its power to speed up and strengthen the negotiation process between Iran and the West.

While in Budapest Ali Ahani gave a lecture at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and subsequently a press conference (by which point MTI finally reported on his presence). He announced that it was high time to renew economic relations between the two countries but that cultural and scientific relations should also be revived. He saw no obstacles to building a close relationship between the two countries now that there is a new government in power. In the past Hungary neglected Iran and concentrated too much on Europe. He complained about the European Union's attitude toward Iran and expressed his hope that Hungary's EU rotating presidency in the next six months will make a difference. He added that even a small country can be a big player in world affairs.

As for the Iranian-Hungarian trade relations. Once upon a time there was $400 million worth of trade between the two countries, but in the last eight years it shrank to $40 million because Hungary concentrated only on the European Union. He expressed his satisfaction that Hungary after the elections took steps toward the revival of bilateral relations. So, the initiative came from Budapest. For example, he mentioned the Iranian-Hungarian Friendship Group that was formed by a number of Hungarian MPs. Ali Ahani met with members of this group and added that a similar friendship group came into being in Teheran.

In case my readers are surprised about this development, I should mention that the first Orbán government also had rather close relations with Iran. A Hungarian-Iranian friendship group came into being during the summer of 2000 in Teheran and in December 2000 a similar group was formed in Budapest. The Orbán government's interest in Iran was underscored by a visit paid by János Martonyi to Teheran in 2001. It seems that the second Orbán government has renewed its interest in Iran. If one can believe the Iranian sources, Hungary even promised to be a bridge between Iran and the European Union. Ahani also announced that high-level visits are being planned in the near future.

Ali Ahani gave an interview to Népszabadság in which he was more open about Iranian-Hungarian relations past and present. He was very critical of the foreign policy of the European Union which Iran "cannot consider to be positive." The decisions of the European Union are not Europe's own but are influenced by the United States, and that state of affairs is "simply not worthy of Europe." Iran is hoping that after the structural changes due to the Lisbon Agreement the European Union will be able to conduct an independent foreign policy. Yet there are many uncertainties even in the new EU structure. It is not clear what the responsibility of the rotating presidencies will be; the role of the "foreign minister" of the Union, Catherine Ashton, is also unclear.

According to Ahani, since the formation of the new Hungarian government there have been many hopeful signs, and it seems that Hungarian diplomats will take stock of the possibilities for future cooperation. Otherwise he forcefully denied that Jobbik received financial assistance from the Iranian government. Just because Jobbik agrees with Iran's policies their political opponents immediately accuse them of financial dependence. Of course, what was not mentioned in the interview is that Jobbik is enamored with Iran mostly because of the latter's anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Then at last the Hungarian Foreign Ministry released a very brief communiqué which is worth quoting in full: "Between November 15 and 17 Ali Ahani, the deputy foreign minister in charge of European affairs of the Iranian Islamic Republic, visited Budapest. János Martonyi received him in the form of a courtesy call during which they talked about the position of Iran and the international expectations toward it. They did mention the possibilities of widening bilateral relations. The Iranian deputy foreign minister consulted with his partners, János Hóvári, deputy undersecretary, and Péter Sztáray, political director, concerning bilateral relations and other international questions."

Well, well. What a carefully formulated understatement. A courtesy call? But it is clear that the Iranian diplomat purposely came to Budapest at the invitation of János Martonyi. He didn't just drop in for a courtesy call. And surely, according to all reports, the two men didn't just talk about the position of Iran and the international expectations toward it. It seems that Hungary offered its good offices to Iran in mending relations between the European Union and Iran.

If I were Hungary I would tread lightly here. Although the European Union is Iran's largest trading partner, the political differences between them are considerable. Moreover, the European Union is steadfastly against Iran's nuclear ambitions. We will just have to keep our eyes open. In any case, I don't think that Hungary, rotating presidency or not, will be able to influence the attitude of either the EU or the United States when it comes to their assessment of Iran.


  1. All very puzzling. Why did Hungary once have so much trade with Iran?
    Is OV going to use his EU Presidency to ‘make a name’ for himself by playing silly buggers with issues like this?
    Is there some sort of hidden anti-Israel/Semite agenda – any enemy of the Jews is a friend of ours?
    Incidentally, my wife was on the phone to her mother today and reports that there was some sort of ‘fuss’ about Israel wanting to join the EU in the Hungarian media. I know nothing more about this, and can find absolutely nothing about it in the UK media. Does anyone know what this is about?

  2. Tamas may have a point. The Nabucco gas has to come from somewhere. Developing trade links with Iran is one thing, giving cover for their nuclear programme is another however.

  3. @ Paul: I remember that there was some EU cooperation agreement to be ratified, but now I can’t find the corresponding news either. Jobbik complained that there cannot be cooperation with such a country etc. etc. I didn’t hear anything about the outcome, but I guess if the parliament had refused to ratify, it would have been big news.
    I don’t think that OV personally has an anti-israel agenda in his mind. I think it’s really about business, especially oil. And of course it’s very flattering to be called a “big player in world affairs”.

  4. Perhaps Orban’s model is Belorus, which under Lukashenko has maintained a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran which is uniquely close in Europe. Then again, there are many other uniquities about Lukashenko and Belorus; I shudder to think that Orban may be interested in emulating them as well.

  5. @Paul, Rigó Jancsi:
    It’s about the EU-mediterranean trade partnership,
    For Jobbik, passing this law means the government sold out the country to Israel, “which is now given the same rights and possibilities to economically invade Hungary as if it was a member of EU”. Last week’s title page of party-weekly Barikad was only an Israel flag and the title “100% Israel”.

  6. I think this is clearly an Iranian initiative: they perceive that OV as the EU president in the following 6 months could be more accessible to their openings than other European leaders would be. It can be a window of opportunity for loosening the grip of the recent embargo and isolation. By OV’s latest “anti-West” pronouncements they might be right.
    The EU and the US could do better and watch out not to loose their comparatively better bargaining position they have gained recently by winning the collaboration of Russia and partly China on the Iran issue.
    On the other hand it can be true as well that OV might play the good cop in the game to bring Iran to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue, if OV really decides to play along.

  7. We should welcome the Iranian initiative to have better relations with an EU country. I am sure that Orbán is well aware that any such relationship has to be within the context of EU policies. One should remember that Canada for example continues to have good relations with Cuba despite the American sanctions. No reason to overreact here.

  8. GabeGab: “I think this is clearly an Iranian initiative”
    From what the Iranian diplomat said it is clear that it was the Hungarian government that took the initiative.

  9. Eva: you are right, I missed the emphasis that the Hungarian government itself offered to play such a role. (Even if, since the Iranian official mentioned that, and obviously one should not take it entirely on face value.) Anyway this would be a strange move from Budapest, since even along OV’s own logic of new eastern opening, they could base their policy much better on traditionally strong relationships with countries like Russia, India, or even China.
    So yes, if it is so, I cannot help to see this as an attempt from Orban to test the tolerance of the western alliance in such a sensitive matter as the Iran issue.

  10. We Hungarians feel that we found an ally, the EU and US never did (like in 56) and will never do anything to protect Hungary, more likely the US (or more precisely Israel) will always steer hate in the surrounding neighboring countries like “Romania and Slovakia”. It is time for Hungary to step up and find a worthy ally, because EU is not an ally, and neither US. The way it looks, Iran is the only current ally of Hungary besides Poland. Long live Hungary, Long live Iran, and long live the Hungarian Guard!

  11. Protect Hungary from what, precisely?
    The only thing Hungary needs protecting from are nutters like the ‘Hungarian Guard’ and their fellow travellers in Fidesz.
    Still, it makes a change from the usual trolls. (Where are they? It seems awfully quiet…)

  12. Thanks, pusztaranger, that puts the ‘Israel’ thing into perspective.
    I mentioned pusztaranger’s post to my wife, by way of an explanation for her mother’s comments, and got an absolutely classic mad Hungarian reply.
    Apparently Israel is buying up plots of land in Hungary and building houses for “their people”. Why on earth would they do that? I asked, somewhat taken aback to find a Fidesz viper in my own nest. Because Hungary has such good land, came the reply, they want to take over the country to settle their people.
    As it happens, I regard Israel as a criminal state because their obvious determination to take over the occupied territories via illegal settlements, and will happily boycott anything I know to originate there (I have even given up going to see Loki matches!), so I am no friend or supporter of Israel. But, but I am still staggered that an intelligent young woman, who has lived in the UK for 10 years and speaks and reads English fluently, should uncritically hold such crazy views.
    The Hungarians really are their worst enemies.

  13. Paul: “somewhat taken aback to find a Fidesz viper in my own nest.”
    That is not so much Fidesz as Jobbik.

  14. You are right, Éva. The thing I find most difficult to deal with in marrying into a Hungarian family is the unthinking racism.
    But, in my wife’s defence, she would be absolutely horrified to be described as ‘Jobbik’, as would the rest of her family.
    It just shows how much the Fidesz and Jobbik politics/beliefs overlap. I suspect a great many Fidesz are really natural Jobbik supporters, but can’t face up to logic of where their beliefs should take them.
    Perhaps, ironically, we should be grateful to Fidesz for siphoning off this natural Jobbik support. Think what Jobbik might have become if there were no Fidesz.

  15. “Apparently Israel is buying up plots of land in Hungary and building houses for “their people”. Why on earth would they do that? I asked, somewhat taken aback to find a Fidesz viper in my own nest. Because Hungary has such good land, came the reply, they want to take over the country to settle their people.”
    One on my (Hungarian) friends was told by a relative that Israelis were buying up Hungary because it has Europe’s biggest water supply. Coming as I do from the rainier fringes of the UK I found this so ignorant that it was amusing.

  16. Paul: “I suspect a great many Fidesz are really natural Jobbik supporters”
    According to some estimates 1/3.

  17. @Paul: “Perhaps, ironically, we should be grateful to Fidesz for siphoning off this natural Jobbik support. Think what Jobbik might have become if there were no Fidesz.”
    I see this the other way around. Jobbik would be not be where it is now without Fidesz. Fidesz and OV had a major role in setting “new norms” as to what is acceptable in the current political discourse. There was a good chance when Jobbik could have been marginalized, just like MIEP was, if Fidesz had drawn a stricter line. It may be too late now.
    That is not to say that the incompetence of the left, the corruption scandals and the economic recession (remember, the biggest one in the world since the 30s) would have not lead to the increase in Jobbik’s popularity without Fidesz.. but I don’t think they’d be this popular. And some of the extreme right wing attitudes would have not become tolerated and/or accepted in the mainstream right, which is perhaps even more dangerous.
    I know people have their prejudices and are quick to find scapegoats when things are not going well. But mainstream politicians do have the responsibility to firmly draw the line, because if they don’t, these sentiments only grow stronger.

  18. Good points, An.
    I think we’re back to OV again here, and his unquenchable thirst for power. He blatantly used the extreme right (both by adopting and adapting their policies and by encouraging their bully boys) to marginalise the Left and boost his own popularity.
    And now he has the power he so desperately wanted, he also has the Jobbik problem that he has created. A Faustian Pact, if ever there was one.
    Éva – purely from personal experience, I fear that 1/3rd may be an underestimate.
    But, looking at that from the other direction, we also have to assume that many (possibly most) Fidesz supporters are NOT that extreme right-wing. Which gives me some hope – will they act as a brake on OV’s (and the KDNP’s) more extreme urges?
    And maybe there are even enough people in Fidesz of a more centre outlook and with a conscience, and those people just might find ‘mainstream’ Fidesz too much to take once things really get going. Parties with large majorities are always ripe for factions and splits, and back-bench rebellions. And, despite OV’s huge majority, it wouldn’t take too many rebels to leave him in the highly uncomfortable position of relying on Jobbik votes to get constitutional changes through.
    He who sups with the Devil must pay the Devil’s bill at the end of the evening.

  19. I had the “pleasure” to travel through the country with a colleague whose sole information source seemed to be, and he, too, was babbling about Isreal buying Hungarian land, swearing about companies like TEVA (actually his own customer) and complaining that the government uses water cannons imported from Israel.
    I guess once you are convinced of a conspiracy theory, there is no use in providing other sources, you will not listen, because all those newspapers, radio stations and websites have been bought by Israel… Actually it’s the other way around, they all belong to Fidesz somehow.

  20. Paul:”It just shows how much the Fidesz and Jobbik politics/beliefs overlap.”
    And also many MSZP supporters are racist against the gypsies, does that mean that MSZP and Jobbik beliefs overlap? I don’t think so. Fidesz beliefs are not the same as beliefs of individual Fidesz supporters, especially because the latter varies from person to person.

  21. Hi Eva, Iran is a peaceful regional power, unlike Israel that practices state terrorism. You should be worried about Hungary entertaining excellent relations with a terrorist state.

  22. I’m glad you raised that, pgyzs, it was an issue I wanted to cover in my original post, but I thought it would just make it too long and rambling.
    As you point out, it is a very sad truth that many on the working class left tend to be simplistic (and therefore often also racist) in their political outlook.
    We have exactly the same situation in the UK, where many people you would expect to be natural Labour supporters can just as easily support the latest right-wing simpletons (currently the rather inaccurately named BNP).
    They also gave Thatcher the massive support she enjoyed from the Malvinas conflict onwards. The uneducated masses are easily swayed by politicians promising to restore pride in their country and offering simple solutions to the nation’s problems. (As you may have noticed.)
    But I think there is a key difference between the support such people give to the extreme right-wing parties, and the support they get (actual and hidden) from ‘mainstream’ right-wing voters (although I wouldn’t actually class Fidesz as mainstream).
    In times of stress, the simplistic policies put forward by the extreme right-wing appeal to the working class voters because they are desperate (or feel themselves to be so) and can’t understand why their ‘own people’ (Labour, MSzP, etc) don’t do something about the situation (lack of housing, jobs, etc). So they effectively register a protest vote by supporting the extremists.
    But few of them continue their support beyond this. As soon as the situation starts to improve, or their eyes are opened to the true nature of the extremists, they return to their natural political home. In short, their support is an act of desperation, not genuine conviction, and is only short-lived.
    However, I feel that the right-winger’s support for the extremists is of a significantly different nature. They too are attracted by the simplistic policies and the easy ‘solution’ of racism, but their support is not driven by desperation, it is more a natural development from where they politically already are.
    Many of these people are unable to openly support parties such as Jobbik because of their feeling that it wouldn’t be socially acceptable. But it wouldn’t take a great deal in most cases for them to cross that line and either become passive Jobbik supporters from within Fidesz (as I suspect many already are), or too actually openly support them.
    The key difference is that for most of the working class voters supporting a right-wing party is not a natural position and they are not comfortable with it. Whereas right-wingers are merely taking a step or two in the direction they are already going politically.
    For the working class Jobbik supporters of the Left, their vote is a act of desperation, but for the right-wingers it is just a move along a continuum which has the centre-right at one end and madmen like Jobbik at the other.
    I appreciate that this ‘explanation’ doesn’t entirely answer the question of why so many nominally left-wing people are racist, but I feel that is a different (if related) topic, which would turn this into a mega-post if I were to attempt to deal with it. But I’m happy to have a crack at it another time.

  23. Mr ‘Proud Member of the Hungarian Guard’ I do not know too much of the last days of the 1956 uprising, I was rolling around in Arctic seas, freezing (the ship was built for the tropics). The West did all it could on the political front to help but because of Geography that was ALL it could do. Nagy knew this, as should have you.
    You do not have to be a military genius to see this. Look at a map of Europe of the time. Think about the political situation and who was in control there etc. How could ground troops be deployed? Why could the West not have used airborne forces? The answer is all there for anyone to see! Napoleon said “An army marches on its stomach”!
    Ask yourself about the treaties of Paris (1947) and of Vienna (1955) and why the ‘Warsaw Pact (1955) had to be put in place? Think about it! It is the key to the problem of support for Hungary!.
    Hungary is now a member of NATO as are its neighbours (Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia). This means that Hungary can now be supported. In 1956 it could not!
    Look at the nature of the uprising. Why did Nagy keep the Hungarian Army in its barracks? You call yourself a ‘Guardsman’. I fear that you know less of Geo-politics and logistics than a ‘Novice in a Nunnery’.
    Iran is a very interesting choice of ally. It is a theocratic dictatorship. It is ruled by the ‘Mullahs’ who are of the sect of Islam called the ‘Shait-Ali’ (the Party of Ali). This sect has things in common with the Hungarians in that they feel like ‘victims of history’. Read more about them, their history and beliefs, you may then understand where they wish to go. Look at ‘Hezbollah’ and ‘Jihad’, understand them, Israel is used as a rallying point which can be used to joins the two main factions or sects of Islam (The ‘Sunni’ and the ‘Shait-Ali’).
    Remember the ‘Caliphate’ and the ‘Ummah’, these are all part of the problem.

  24. If I may add to Odin’s lost eye, we do not have to go particularly far back into history to raise a strong objection to Hungary getting close to Iran.
    For years, we have heard complaints that the MSzP stole elections, and those complaints came loudest from Fidesz. Naturally, we assumed that the complaint was based upon principle and not purely upon self-interest. Well, the regime in Iran blatently and bloodily stole the last election; if Fidesz had any principles at all, they would not be getting close to the government Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But, as in the case of Communist Party-run China, this is another case of running as far and fast away from any principles as possible.

  25. Kolarek Moralek you are totally right. It’s an upside down world where people cannot accept the simple fact that Iran is actually a very peacefull country (I know tons of iranians and even been there) especially compared to Israel. We are thought from the beginning of our lives that there are good guys and bad guys and that we, western societies, are the good guys. However, to me it becomes more and more obvious that the west is actually the real bad guy and the only real terrorists of the world. I support Iran, it’s external politics, it’s opinions and a strong Hungarian-Iranian relationship. Odin’s eye: you may say what you want, the overall Hungarian opinion is that we were sacked and ignored by the West in ’56. And yes, MszP plays along with Israel. They have sold half our country to Israelis and zionists at bargain prices. The Hungarian state property agency ÁPV Rt. owned 99.5% of the Malév share. It was sold to Boris Abramovich for $950,000, who owns KrasAir and AiRUnion. Are you reading this? Malev was property of the Hungarian people and was sold without consent at a minimum price.
    HNA, Air France-KLM and Austrian Airlines were are also interested in the bid, and were willing to pay far more than 950.000, but Hungarian MszP officials wanted a ‘Special fit’.

  26. Éva, I think you need to have a word with Typepad about these spam postings, this is the 4th or 5th one we’ve had in the last few days.

  27. Paul””Éva, I think you need to have a word with Typepad about these spam postings, this is the 4th or 5th one we’ve had in the last few days.”
    Funny you! I report every one of them and block their IP addresses to no avail.

  28. Thanks, Éva. I suppose there’s not much more that they can do. The IP addresses are probably false, anyway – a new one generated for each post.

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