BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — The potholed streets leading to Tiszavasvari’s rusty train station offer no clue that this sleepy town of 12,000 in eastern Hungary is considered the “capital of Jobbik,” the country’s ultranationalist, anti-Jewish party whose name means “better.”
The first sign appears near the office of the mayor, Erik Fulop, the first of five Jobbik politicians elected to run a Hungarian municipality. Shortly after taking office in 2010, Fulop set up a twinning arrangement between Tiszavasvari and the Iranian city of Ardabil, and a sign in Hungarian and Farsi near the office celebrates those ties.
Observers say the announcement of the twinning arrangement was the first international event held in Hungary under Jobbik’s auspices and a mark of a growing partnership aimed at breaking through the isolation that both the party and the Iranian government are laboring under — Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program and support for terrorism, Jobbik for its hyper-nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Tiszavasvari’s official website states that “the embargo on Iran is merely a way for world powers to monopolize trade with Iran,” and expresses hope that the town “may lead the way to reversing this process.” Jobbik’s leader, Gabor Vona, has hosted a number of Iranian delegations there since the start of the twinning arrangement.
“The Persian people and their leaders are considered pariahs in the eyes of the West, which serves Israeli interests,” said Marton Gyongyosi, Jobbik’s foreign policy chief, at a pro-Iran demonstration organized by the party in December at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. “This is why we have solidarity with the peaceful nation of Iran and turn to her with an open heart.”
Jobbik’s meteoric rise since its founding in 2003 has long been a source of consternation to Hungary’s Jewish communal leaders, some of whom fear its growth is a driving factor behind Jewish emigration from the central European country. Currently the third largest faction in parliament, Jobbik has increased its share of the popular vote nearly eightfold in the four years prior to 2010 and currently holds 47 of 386 parliamentary seats.
Less well known is the party’s intensifying partnership with Iran. Following Fulop’s decision to twin with Ardabil, another Jobbik mayor, Juhasz Oszkar of Gyogyospata, also twinned with an Iranian municipality. Top Jobbik figures joined Hungarian businessmen on a trip to Iran to help deepen commercial ties between the countries. And Jobbik is one of only two parties represented in parliament’s Hungarian-Iranian Friendship Committee.
“It is anti-Semitism that binds the Hungarian ultranationalists with the ayatollahs of Tehran in a nexus of hate,” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in 2011. “That is all they have in common.”
In truth, Jobbik’s affinity toward Iran goes much deeper. The party is intensely opposed to globalization and the unification of Europe, lacks for international partners due to its radical rhetoric and sees in Iran not only one of the few governments willing to engage with it, but one with a shared commitment to resisting Western hegemony.
Jobbik officials did not reply to repeated requests for an interview, but party sources did speak to investigative journalist Ferenc Szlazsanszky, who believes the party is determined to nurture relations with any country capable of helping Hungary end its “enslavement” by the European Union and the United States.
According to Szlazsanszky, a writer with the Hungarian weekly Hetek, the “driving force” behind Jobbik’s pro-Iranian stance is Gyongyosi, the foreign policy chief, who drew a volley of international criticism in November when he called for the registration of Hungarian Jews, citing their potential as a security risk. He said later he was referring to Hungarian Israelis.
The son of a diplomat, Gyongyosi lived as a boy in several Muslim countries, and his ties in the East were a major factor in shaping the party’s pro-Muslim stance, Szlazsanszky wrote in November.
“It is unacceptable that the once flourishing trade between Iran and Hungary sank to almost zero; this is what Jobbik intends to change,” Gyongyosi said in a recent interview in Barikad!, a Jobbik-affiliated weekly. “For Iran, Hungary is the West and for Hungary Iran is the gate to the East.”
Jobbik’s general antagonism toward Israel has blossomed in recent months into a fully fledged campaign. Gyongyosi has announced a national tour of lectures on the “Zionist threat to world peace.” In parallel, anti-Jewish or anti-Israel articles now take up more than 30 percent of the content on the party’s English-language website.
“It is no coincidence that Jobbik is intensifying its anti-Israel propaganda the more it tightens its ties with Iran,” said Joel Rubinfeld, co-chairman of the Brussels-based European Jewish Parliament, who recently returned from a round of talks in Hungary. “The time correlation is one of the ways in which we see the Iranian fingerprint on Jobbik.”
One of the few people with insider knowledge of the Jobbik-Iran axis is Afi Hossein Jahromi, an Iranian-born dentist, founder of the Hungarian Iranian Business Group and a personal friend of Gyongyosi.
In 2011, Jahromi helped organize an economic mission to Iran in cooperation with the Iranian embassy. The trip was aimed at reversing a 90 percent drop in trade between the two countries, from $400 million to $40 million since 2000, Jahromi said. The period in question coincided with the tightening of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic in an effort to curb its suspected nuclear weapons program.
“I’m not about the politics. I just want to create more business,” Jahromi told JTA in an interview at the Persian restaurant he owns in Budapest. “If Jobbik enters government next year, I think things may improve because Jobbik wants what’s good for Hungary, not for the EU.”
As with Iran’s alliances with other rogue regimes, like Syria and Venezuela, the country’s partnership with Jobbik may be one of simple convenience. Neither has many friends from which to choose.
“Jobbik’s fanaticism has made it an outcast even in Europe’s extreme right,” said Attila Ara-Kovacs, a philosopher, journalist and former secretary of the Alliance of Free Democrats-Hungarian Liberal Party. “Jobbik’s territorial claims rule out alliances with like-minded movements in neighboring countries. And the extreme right in Western Europe wouldn’t touch them. So Iran is all Jobbik has left.”
Others see the partnership as based not on a common enemy but a shared interest — the refusal to be subordinate to the interests of Europe and the United States. Like most European far-right parties, Jobbik’s primary electoral appeal is to voters frightened by the encroachment of the European superstate and the possible diminution of local identities.
“Iranians and Hungarians are joined not by circumstances nor by anti-Israel sentiment, but by the refusal to be ruled and ruined by the European Union, which has ravaged Spain and Greece,” Jahromi said. “Hungarians refuse to be next. But it’s easier for the European media to focus on the anti-Israel bit.”