April 27, 2010 | Wall Street Journal Europe

The Austrian-Iranian Axis

While the Western world is trying to rally international support for tougher sanctions against Tehran to stop its nuclear-weapons program, Austria seems to seek even closer ties with the mullahs. Instead of isolating the Islamic Republic, Vienna just welcomed Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, who in 2006 gave the opening speech at Tehran’s Holocaust denial conference.

Despite media reports of American, British and French opposition to the visit, the Austrian government proceeded Sunday with holding a reception for Mr. Mottaki. As he shook hands with Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, the flag of the Islamic Republic flew on top of the building of the foreign ministry, together with those of Austria and the European Union. During the joint press conference, Mr. Spindelegger stated that “dialogue is a central element” and urged Iran to cooperate so that sanctions could be avoided. Mr. Mottaki claimed that the meeting was held in a very pleasant atmosphere and called his Austrian counterpart “my friend.”

In response to the visit’s critics, Vienna claims to have sent a clear message to Iran. But although Austria’s foreign minister also spoke about the possibility of further sanctions against Tehran, the warm welcome for the Iranian foreign minister did much to improve the regime’s international image.

And to what degree Austria, one of the rotating members of the United Nations Security Council, would actually support tough sanctions is more than questionable. In fact in the past years there has been significant resistance in Austria to curtailing its thriving trade relations with Iran.

While most European countries have reduced their business ties with the mullahs, Austrian exports to Iran, including sophisticated machinery and electronic goods, rose by almost 6% in 2009, reaching approximately €350 million. That figure is even more astounding given that during last year’s world financial crisis, Austrian exports to the rest of the world fell 20%. Several Austrian companies are suspected of working with front companies affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Citing information provided by the companies’ own Web sites, Emanuele Ottolenghi writes in his recent book “Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb” that Tech Hydropower, a company owned by the Austrian Andritz group, is involved in the construction of an Iranian dam on behalf of Sepazad Engineering, the Guard’s engineering branch.

As “Azadi,” the call for freedom, was heard throughout the streets of Tehran this summer, the Austrian Chambers of Commerce organized an Iran seminar to intensify business ties with the mullah dictatorship. During the visit of a high-ranking Iranian business delegation to Austria in March of last year, the president of the Chambers of Commerce, Christoph Leitl, who like Foreign Minister Spindelegger is a member of the conservative party, clearly stated his vision for future trade between the two countries:

“Bilateral business relations between Austria and Iran are excellent, but still expandable.” No wonder his Iranian counterpart Ali Naghi Khamoushi said a few years back that “Austria is for us the gateway to the European Union.”

The Mottaki visit was no aberration. Vienna has a long tradition of appeasing the Islamic Republic. In 1984, Austrian Social-Democrat Erwin Lanc was the first Western foreign minister to visit Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president whose term in office was darkened by revelations about his Nazi past, became the first Western head of state to pay the regime in Tehran a courtesy visit in 1991. Waldheim even placed a wreath at Ayatollah Khomeini’s sarcophagus. His trip to Tehran paved the way for further visits by high-ranking politicians from other Western European countries—especially from Germany.

Even as Iran is making steady progress on its nuclear program, chances for a successful regime change from within have never been more promising. Will Austria choose continued collaboration with those who threaten to annihilate the Jewish state and suppress their own people or will Vienna endorse the international calls for tougher sanctions?

Austria prefers to present itself as Nazi Germany’s first victim when in fact it was Hitler’s —born and raised in Austria—first collaborator. It would be nice to see Austria today not aligned with an anti-Semitic regime.

Ms. Hartmann is director of Stop the Bomb Austria and co-editor of “Iran in the World System,” to be published by Studienverlag.