BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of the World Jewish Congress sharply criticized German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Wednesday for his recent visit to Iran, accusing him of putting business interests before morals and calling his approach to Tehran naive.
Lured by the prospect of an easing of economic sanctions against Iran following a landmark nuclear deal with western powers last week, Gabriel, who is also vice chancellor, made a three-day trip to Iran from Sunday to Tuesday, meeting President Hassan Rouhani and his top ministers.
A delegation of German business representatives also traveled to Iran, including the heads of industrial gases group Linde and chemicals firm BASF.
The trip irritated Iran's sworn enemy Israel, with whom Germany has cultivated an especially close relationship since World War Two, when the Nazis killed six million Jews. The Israeli ambassador privately voiced his concerns about Gabriel's visit to the German government.
"It is somewhat irritating that Germany's vice chancellor and economics minister waited only five days before flying to Tehran with a delegation of German business leaders," Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a statement provided to Reuters.
Lauder said Gabriel's offer to function as a bridge builder between Iran and Israel was naive given what he described as ongoing agitation from Tehran against Israel and the United States.
"It would have been much better to make new commercial relations with Iran dependent on a change in the regime's stance toward Israel," Lauder said.
Gabriel defended his visit to Tehran. The nuclear deal with Iran formed a "good basis" for a normalization of relations, a spokeswoman for the economy ministry said.
A government spokeswoman added that Gabriel coordinated his plan to visit Iran with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On his trip, Gabriel, who is head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition partner of Merkel's conservatives, said it was important that Iran improve ties with Israel and acknowledge its right to exist.
He also announced plans to revive long-dormant talks between the governments and industry on economic ties.
The timing of Gabriel's trip, so soon after the nuclear deal was struck, was also a source of debate within the German government. Some also felt it would have been better if Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who helped negotiate the agreement, went there first, so as not to give the impression that Germany's priority was striking business deals.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who also took part in the nuclear talks, is due to travel to Iran next week.
For decades, Germany was Iran's biggest trading partner in Europe, but exports slumped after the West tightened sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program.
German industry associations have said exports to Iran, which totaled 2.4 billion euros last year, could quadruple to 10 billion within a few years.
German machinery, automobile, healthcare and renewable energy firms would likely be the biggest beneficiaries of an opening up of the Iranian market.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Noah Barkin and Dominic Evans)