“I have registered that Per Sandberg has been on holiday in Iran,” the leader of his Progress Party, Siv Jensen, wrote in her first comment on Sandberg’s controversial summer trip to Iran with his new Iranian-born girlfriend. Jensen neither criticized nor supported Sandberg in her carefully worded email to state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday.
Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, wrote that Sandberg’s trip “doesn’t change the Progress Party’s critical attitude toward the policies that are carried out by the regime in Iran.”
She added that “we are extremely crticial of the human rights situation in Iran, especially the widespread use of the death penalty. We are also critical of Iran’s role in several of the conflicts in the region.”
There’s no question that Sandberg’s trip has caused problems not only for Norway’s conservative government coalition, of which the Progress Party is a member, but also for the party itself. Progress has long been one of Israel’s biggest supporters within Norway, along with being skeptical towards both Islam and immigration. Israel considers Iran one of its most bitter enemies.
Several of Sandberg’s conservative colleagues, along with Sandberg himself, have also long sought to restrict immigration and the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Norway. The party also strongly backed a measure that can revoke residence permission for any asylum seeker who travels back to his or her homeland, on the grounds that then their homeland can’t have been so dangerous after all.
The recently separated Sandberg traveled to Iran accompanied by his new girlfriend Bahareh Letnes. She arrived in Norway as a refugee herself but her application was rejected and she was forcibly sent back to Iran, only to be returned to Norway, reportedly because her papers weren’t in order. Norwegian authorities eventually granted her asylum and residence permission on the grounds she was young and risked being forcibly married if she was sent back to Iran once again.
Sandberg sees none of the irony in his own situation now. Letnes is clearly an acceptable refugee for him, and he points out that she has become a Norwegian citizen. That exempts her from the new rule against traveling back to her homeland.
Some of Sandberg’s party colleagues, meanwhile, have expressed discomfort with Sandberg’s new interest in Iran that earlier has included efforts to promote Norwegian seafood in the country. That’s also an effort shared by Letnes through a company she set up in January that seeks to develop more trade between Norway and Iran. That in turn has raised questions of potentila conflicts on interest for Sandberg.
Siv Jensen said she believes Sandberg will be acutely aware of any situation that could compromise his impartiality. “If anyone is in doubt about their impartiality, they should first take up the issue with their own ministry officials,” Jensen wrote. She seems confident that Sandberg will evaluate his own impartiality “if any issue comes up that can affect or involve the company that has been established by the woman he traveled with to Iran.”
Jensen said she was also aware that Sandberg has been called upon to address concerns in Parliament about his trip, and answer questions about his impartiality. She also noted that Sandberg has received criticism for violating government rules by not informing either his own ministry or the Office of the Prime Minister about his trip before he left. Jensen deferred to the remarks made earlier on Wednesday by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, that Sandberg has broken the rules.
Sandberg has also been asked to turn in the mobile telephone he took with him on his trip, so that data experts can try to determine whether it was compromised in any way. By taking his phone with him, he has also raised concerns that he subjected his phone, himself and the government to the risk of being hacked, and allowing access to his passwords and sensitive government information.
Opposition politicians and commentators were speculating on Wednesday whether Sandberg was conscious of his own role as a government minister when he decided to travel to Iran. He has insisted that he made the trip strictly as a private person, but many point out that government leaders are not private people and always represent the government and the country.