German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel
German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar GabrielReuters

German’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Thursday rejected criticism over his visit to Iran this week, The Associated Press (AP) reports.

Gabriel’s three-day trip alongside German business leaders was criticized by local Jewish groups and opposition lawmakers, who urged Germany to consider its special responsibility toward Israel, which considers the Islamic Republic a threat to its national security.

Activists warned that Iran's human rights record and support for President Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria should make Western governments think twice, AP reported.

Speaking publicly for the first time since his return, Gabriel dismissed that criticism Thursday, saying the earlier sanctions against Iran only had "one concrete reason and that was the nuclear negotiations."

Making countries' human rights situation the basis for economic ties would mean calling into question relations with other nations, such as China, he argued.

German companies did extensive business in Iran for decades until sanctions forced them to all but pull out. Among those hoping to profit now are industrial giants such as ThyssenKrupp, BASF, Volkswagen and Siemens, noted AP.

Green party lawmaker Volker Beck, a longtime supporter of Israel, said this week that the current Iranian government shouldn't be considered a friend or partner for Germany.

"The human rights situation in Iran remains catastrophic and the Iranian regime continues to support terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas," he said, according to AP.

And, in an op-ed published in German daily Handelsblatt, the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, said it would have been much better to make new commercial relations with Iran dependent on a change in the regime's stance toward Israel.

While Gabriel did urge Iran during his visit to recognize Israel, he made clear that Lauder’s suggestion wasn't an option.

"The German economy minister is there to help his country and its economy," said Gabriel, according to AP. "And next week the French, the Italians (are going to Iran)."

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is due to visit Iran next week to explore business opportunities and Spain is planning to send an official delegation in September.

Earlier on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande spoke with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, and the two agreed to “step up bilateral cooperation”.

The conversation followed an announcement by  EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini that she would visit Iran as part of her next Middle East tour.

Austria's president plans to travel to Iran on September 7-9, likely making him the first Western head of state to do so.