BERLIN — In the race to secure business deals with Iran, Germany was quickest out of the blocks.
On Sunday, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel became the first senior Western official to visit Iran following last week's agreement to ease sanctions on the Islamic nation in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program.
The three-day trip alongside German business leaders was criticized by Jewish groups and opposition lawmakers, who urged Germany to consider its special responsibility toward Israel, which considers the Islamic Republic a threat to its national security. Activists warned that Iran's human rights record and support for President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria should make Western governments think twice.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his return, Gabriel dismissed that criticism Thursday, saying the earlier sanctions against Iran only had "one concrete reason and that was the nuclear negotiations."
He said making countries' human rights situation the basis for economic ties would mean calling into question relations with other nations, such as China.
German companies did extensive business in Iran for decades until sanctions forced them to all but pull out. Among those hoping to profit now are industrial giants such as ThyssenKrupp, BASF, Volkswagen and Siemens, which was involved in the construction of Iran's first railways in the late 19th century.
Last year, Germany imported goods worth 295 million euros from Iran and exported goods not covered by the sanctions worth 2.39 billion euros ($2.6 billion). Deutsche Bank analysts last week predicted the German exports alone could soon top 4.4 billion euro, the level they were at before the sanctions were introduced a decade ago.
But Germany celebrates the 50th anniversary of its diplomatic ties with Israel this year, and its dealing with Iran are under particular scrutiny at home and abroad.
Green party lawmaker Volker Beck, a longtime supporter of Israel, said this week that the current Iranian government shouldn't be considered a friend or partner for Germany.
"The human rights situation in Iran remains catastrophic and the Iranian regime continues to support terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas," said Beck.
In an op-ed published in German daily Handelsblatt, the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, said it would have been much better to make new commercial relations with Iran dependent on a change in the regime's stance toward Israel.
The German government made clear that wasn't an option.
"The German economy minister is there to help his country and its economy," said Gabriel. "And next week the French, the Italians (are going to Iran)."
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is due to visit the country next week to explore business opportunities and Spain is planning to send an official delegation in September. Austria's president plans to travel to Iran on Sept. 7-9, likely making him the first Western head of state to do so.
Switzerland, which for decades acted as an intermediary between the United States and Iran, and represents American consular interests in Iran, also hopes to profit from its good standing with the government there.
Livia Leu, a former Swiss ambassador in Tehran and now the country's top trade envoy, said Iran could become a very interesting market.
"With almost 80 million citizens it's a large country that's rich in natural resources," said Leu. "Like in every large country there are wide-ranging needs that stretch from big infrastructure projects to consumer goods such as food, pharmaceutical and medical products."
At a two-day EU-Iran business conference in Vienna, the Iranian deputy oil minister said his country hopes to do deals worth $185 billion (nearly 170 billion euros) for oil and gas projects alone by 2020.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared repeatedly that the security of Israel is one of the fundamental tenets of the German state. Her office said she didn't mention her deputy's trip to Iran in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday.
Olga Syrova in Berlin, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Lori Hinnant in Paris, George Jahn in Vienna and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.