Solberg reins in errant minister

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg has broken her initial silence over Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg’s controversial summer holiday in Iran. Now she claims there’s “no doubt” he should have reported where he was going before leaving for Iran, and that he thus has violated government regulations.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg could no longer turn her back on the controversy swirling around her government minister Per Sandberg. She claimed Wednesday, while attendng the Norway Cup football tournament, that Sandberg broke government rules in connection with his summer holiday trip to Iran. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

“I have spoken with Per Sandberg,” Solberg told reporters when she made an appearance on Wednesday at the international Norway Cup football tournament in Oslo. “He traveled to Iran before he reported the trip to the Office of the Prime Minister.”

She added that he didn’t report where he was until two days after he’d arrived in Iran. “That’s a violation of regulations,” she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

“But you’re allowed to make mistakes in this country, and it was possible to get in touch with him during the entire time he was there,” said Solberg, stressing that she still has confidence in Sandberg as one of the ministers in her conservative coalition government. While Solberg heads Norway’s Conservative Party, Sandberg is a member of the more conservative Progress Party, and thus not one of the ministers she hand-picked herself.

Asked to turn in his mobile phone
Concerns have risen over the mobile telephone Sandberg took with him on his highly debated trip to Iran. Martin Bernsen of Norway’s state police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) told NRK that PST advises government officials traveling to countries with which Norway has no security cooperation against taking their own phones with them. If they carry phones, he said, they should destroy them upon coming home. Norway’s national security authority NSM points to the risk of government officials’ phones or personal computers being hacked or compromised regarding passwords and access to sensitive government correspondence and information.

Per Sandberg, deputy leader of the Progress Party, has long been a controversial figure in Norwegian politics. Now he’s in trouble again, for traveling to Iran without informing either his ministry or the Office of the Prime Minister. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/

“We have asked him (Sandberg) to turn in the phone (he used) for examination after this,” Solberg told NRK. It can now be a complicated task for PST and other security authorities to determine whether Sandberg’s phone was compromised in any way.

Solberg also confirmed that she’s been aware that the 58-year-old Sandberg had entered into a romantic relationship with his traveling companion on the trip to Iran, the former Iranian refugee Bahareh Letnes. After finally receiving asylum in Norway as a teenager in 2008, after several initial rejections that included her forced deportation back to Iran, the now 28-year-old Letnes has become a Norwegian citizen but only after a process that in many ways seem to have defied the policies of Sandberg’s own immigration-skeptical party.

“I have known for a while that they have a close relationship,” Solberg said on Wednesday, “but I won’t go into detail on my conversations with Per Sandberg.”

‘No changes in Norway’s relation with Iran’
She insisted her minister’s holiday destination wasn’t a problem in itself: “There’s nothing about his trip that changes Norway’s relation with Iran. Norway has, since the Iran Nuclear Agreement was signed in 2016, dropped all sanctions against Iran. We have increased our activity with business development and have made trips to and had meetings with Iranian officials.” Norway was a major supporter of the Iran Nuclear Agreement and helped put it together.

Solberg said she also maintains that Iran “has followed up the agreement that was signed, and we therefore have agreed with the EU to lift the sanctions and expand cooperation.” Both Norway and the EU want the agreement to continue.

Their position, however, is now under intense pressure after US President Donald Trump declared he was pulling the US out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement and reimposing sanctions on the country. He expects all US allies to do the same, with threats of severe financial and economic implications if they don’t.

Solberg was also cheering on a team of business executives who played a Sustainability Match at Norway Cup on Wednesday. The match took place at the Golbal Goals Arena at the tournament’s main venue at Ekeberg in Oslo, where Solberg also had to answer questions from reporters about Sandberg’s trip to Iran. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Eirin Larsen

Sandberg, whose party contains many leaders who agree with Trump, has spoken positively about Iran, done his part to boost Norwegian seafood exports to Iran and even promoted Iran as a tourist destination. He wrote on social media right after his return this week that Iran was “perhaps one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.” He conceded that Iran was “perhaps a controversial travel destination for many, but more and more people are opening their eyes to Iran.” He called Iran “an exciting place to travel around in, and extremely rich in culture, beautiful scenery and thousand-year-old traditions.”

Solberg wouldn’t say whether her minister’s claims reflect the government’s official standpoint on Iran, opting instead to state that “we have been critical (towards Iran) and taken up the death penalty and human rights violations with Iranian authorities. But we have at the same time entered into a process of normalizing relations with Iran.” One of the architects of the Iran Nuclear Agreement was recently in Oslo to promote it and peace.

Sandberg erred, however, in failing to report where he was going on holiday. Despite claiming earlier that Sandberg was on a “private holiday” that didn’t call for any official reaction, the Office of the Prime Minister now agrees with opposition politicians in Parliament that Sandberg should have reported well in advance where he was going. Not even Sandberg’s own ministry was informed of his trip beforehand.

Questions remain
“All absences from Oslo must be reported to the prime minister’s office,” reads the government’s own Handbook for Political Leadership. Time of travel, destination and location of overnight accommodation and “all relevant phone numbers” must be registered. “Ministers should, to the greatest extent possible, be accessible via mobile telephone,” according to the handbook.

Trude Måseide, communications chief for the Office of the Prime Minister, confirmed late Tuesday night that Sandberg had broken that rule: “Per Sandberg has explained that he changed his summer holiday plans on short notice after (earlier) holiday plans had been reported in (to the office). He also said that he reported his holiday plans to his ministry and the Office of the Prime Minister during the first few days of his trip, and not in advance as required.”

Political leaders for the opposition Labour and Socialist Left parties are demanding answers to more questions about Sandberg’s controversial trip. Sandberg himself has been given six days to answer an official inquiry aimed at making sure there has been no blending of Sandberg’s private and public roles, no security risk and no conflicts of interest tied to the trip. Concerns have also arisen that Sandberg’s traveling companion runs a company that aims to increase trade between Norway and Iran, specifically in seafood.

Terje Aasland of the Labour Party wasn’t satisfied with Solberg’s response on Wednesday to the controversy around Sandberg. “I think she’s taking this too lightly,” he told NRK, adding that he still has many questions. Berglund