Germany and Iran

Today, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, German politicians will once again express contrition for the Holocaust, as they have since Helmut Schmidt became the first German chancellor to visit Auschwitz in 1977. But does “working through the past”, as Theodor Adorno put it in a famous essay in 1959, mean anything in Germany today beyond simply commemorating the past? In particular, should the Nazi past play a role in German foreign policy? If so, it must surely mean that Germany should do everything it can to prevent Iran, the world’s most openly anti-Semitic regime whose president denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, from acquiring nuclear weapons. But is it?

The real reason why it is so difficult to put pressure on Iran – for example through tougher sanctions – is Chinese and Russian resistance in the UN Security Council. But for a long time, there has also been a widespread perception that Germany has also been reluctant to put greater pressure on Iran, in contrast to France, the UK and the US. Germany has particularly strong links with Iran that go back a long time and thus has leverage, which is presumably why Germany was invited to take part in negotiations with Iran alongside the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called 5+1). But because of those links, Germany has always favoured a policy of engagement rather than confrontation.

This policy is, it seems, driven above all by business. I am told by the German embassy in London that German exports to Iran totalled four billion euros in 2008, making Germany the largest western exporter to Iran and the second-largest in the world (behind China). Admittedly, German exports have dropped somewhat since their peak in 2005, apparently as a result of the uncertainty over Iran’s future. It has also become harder for German companies to get credit guarantees and the clearance certificates they need to export to Iran. But further action is made difficult by inter-agency differences within Germany – while the chancellery and the foreign ministry (which are concerned with relations with its allies, including Israel and the US) want tougher sanctions, they come up against resistance from the economics ministry (concerned with the long-term future of German firms, particular Mittelstand or medium-sized firms).

German officials deny they are a drag on attempts to get tougher action. They say their position has always been a pragmatic one that sanctions against Iran should be imposed through the UN rather than the EU (thus Germany opposed President Sarkozy’s proposal for EU sanctions in 2007). They fear that if Europe stops exporting trucks to Iran, for example, Chinese or Indian companies will simply take their place, and meanwhile no real pressure will be exerted on Iran to abandon its nuclear programme. The morality of this argument, which could also be used to justify all kinds of other wrongs, is somewhat problematic. But I’m not convinced even in pragmatic terms. Trucks are one thing, but can all the technology Iran needs really be supplied by other non-European countries?

Angela Merkel is certainly much more publicly supportive of Israel than her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, and, since becoming chancellor in 2005, has strengthened relations between Germany and Israel. (Judy Dempsey suggested in a column in the International Herald Tribune last week that Merkel is in fact the most pro-Israeli post-war German chancellor.) Speaking alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Merkel again declared that Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. However, German policy on Iran has not shifted much since Merkel became chancellor in 2005 (although she did say last week that she would support tougher sanctions).

What strikes me as odd is this almost complete disconnect between Germany’s engagement with the Nazi past and its policy on Iran. For example,  Joschka Fischer invoked the Holocaust to justify German participation in the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and was subsequently accused of “instrumentalising” Auschwitz. But according to Volker Perthes, director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (a leading German foreign policy think tank) and an influential figure in debates about Iran in Germany, the Nazi past doesn’t play – and shouldn’t play – any role in German Iran policy. I also find the relative indifference of Germans to the prospect of a nuclear Iran somewhat surprising because of traditionally strong German opposition to nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

According to Perthes, the real split within the E3 is now between France, which is more aggressive on the need for tougher sanctions, and Germany and the UK, which are less enthusiastic. But even if that’s true, Germany is certainly not leading on Iran. I can’t help feeling that because of its (mostly justified) claims about having faced the Nazi past and its vaunted special responsibility for Israel, it ought to be. It seems to me that an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations is becoming more and more likely with every day that goes by. Germany surely doesn’t want that to happen.

UPDATE 1/2/10: Very interesting developments on this subject last week. It seems the relationship between Germany and Iran is now getting a little less cosy. Iran publicly criticised Germany and accused two German intelligence agents of organising anti-government protests. This followed Merkel’s statement in favour of tougher sanctions and an announcement by Siemens that it would seek no new business in Iran. Germany rejects the accusations about the involvement of intelligence agents, but they once again suggest that the BND is getting a little more active than it used to be (see my previous post on this).

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One thought on “Germany and Iran

  1. Pingback: Germany’s nuclear lacuna « Hans Kundnani

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