World Jewish Congress wants Swiss to cancel Iranian gas deal

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The president of the World Jewish Congress said Tuesday he wanted Switzerland to cancel a multibillion-dollar Swiss-Iranian natural gas deal because it threatens Israel and the US.

BERN, Switzerland - The president of the World Jewish Congress said Tuesday he wanted Switzerland to cancel a multibillion-dollar Swiss-Iranian natural gas deal because it threatens Israel and the US.

Ronald Lauder, a billionaire cosmetics magnate, said the deal signed during a visit of Swiss Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey in Tehran last month has angered the WJC because of Iran's hardline president and because it comes at a time when the United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program.

"Maybe that money that Switzerland is paying to Iran will some day be used to either buy weapons to kill Israelis or buy weapons to kill Americans or buy missiles to be able to deliver nuclear weapons," he said.

"I'd like them to cancel it, yes," Lauder told reporters in the Swiss capital. But he said he did not want to exert pressure on the Swiss government.

"I'm coming here more as an ambassador ... than somebody coming with a stick," said Lauder, who is visiting Switzerland in response to an invitation issued last year by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities.

The US, the WJC and other Jewish groups have criticized neutral Switzerland over the deal between Swiss energy trading company EGL and the state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Company, worth US$28-$42 billion (€18-€27 billion).

Photos of the March 17 signing ceremony with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked a furor in Switzerland, where the nationalist People's Party has deplored an image of a smiling Calmy-Rey in a white head scarf seated below a picture of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Maram Stern, WJC honorary vice president, said the delegation would raise the question of canceling the deal during a courtesy visit to Swiss President Pascal Couchepin scheduled for Wednesday.

Lauder said, "I hope that the Swiss government, realizing the ramifications of the deal, would in fact pull back and see if they could make a better deal with several other countries."

The Swiss Foreign Ministry declined to comment Tuesday.

Calmy-Rey has repeatedly said the contract is in line with Switzerland's rights as an independent country with its own strategic interests to defend.

Lauder said he did not know what would happen if the Swiss stay firm on the gas deal.

"But whatever happens, it will not be good," he said.

Alfred Donath, president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said by signing the gas deal Switzerland sent the wrong message at the wrong time.

[Copyright ap 2008]

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