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Monday, December 27, 2010
A chance to improve Germany-Iran relations
By Christoph R. Horstel
“Every fresh beginning is spirited with magic”, writes the famous German poet Goethe – and, true, there seem to be some ingredients in the German-Iranian relationship, that harbor chances for a better future.
Germany’s government has decided to become part of a U.S.-guided process to put pressure on Iran on the “nuclear issue”. Some European countries even went so far as to implement stricter sanctions than the U.S. itself is willing to accept. Germany is striving to win a seat in the UN Security Council – that is presented by the German government to its citizens critical of the present policies as a motivation for playing by ever so many of Washington’s wishes and rules.
To judge all bilateral relation issues by this outer appearance, seems an unnecessarily narrowed perspective. Main reason: The German people, especially the German business community, are no longer playing by the hitherto unchallenged rules. Just a few examples may prove this point: Last year, a ranking Iranian delegation of both government and business representatives traveled to Germany. Prior to the trip the German government had used discrete channels to persuade the large and well-known German host organization, not to receive the delegation, thus in fact trying to stop the visit at all. But what happened? Not only did the hosts not pay heed to these wishes and advances, the visit went through better than planned, with cordial meetings, commune meals and multiple happy highlights. This is no surprise to insiders: In an unprecedented move in German history, the German business community has decided to no longer depend on official support from Berlin: Imports from Iran have nearly doubled last year, exports to Iran also faced a strong booster. And this in spite of the fact that state-backed guarantees for export credits (“Hermes Guarantees”) were lowered in the same period – in continuation of a regrettable policy of the last years.
Asked for the reason why the German business community obviously does not consider the “Hermes” procedure fundamental for its exports to Iran, the answer is quite often: ‘We trust our longstanding Iranian partners, we do not need those guarantees.’ Good to know, but the question for all observers is: How to attract new business under these circumstances?
And in one case, upon combined efforts from the business sector, even federal ministries in Germany tacitly use their leverage to cool hot opposition by friends of Israel’s embassy in Berlin against an important refinery technology deal with Iran. But this is a trickle of cases, whereas a flood of opportunities is lost.
Also astonishing: The nearly-defunct German peace movement, which until 2007 was unwilling to put U.S.-Israeli threats against Iran on its agenda, is now working against these pressures, and warnings against each and every arms deal and military deployment in the region.
And of course: Private visitors of Iran more often than not return in high spirits, planning their next trip. Again: The people are turning against a huge propaganda effort.
This all happens in spite of powerful media criticizing Iran on nearly all issues of public and private life, promoting opposition and denouncing the government.
It is this sorry state of public appearance of Iran, which causes and supports obstacles for any improvement of the relationship. It is in this field, that opportunities of improvement for German-Iranian relations can be detected. Just for the record: The U.S. is spending billions of dollars each year on influencing world opinion, dozens of millions are pushed into the multiple U.S.-German organizations, relations on all levels and parts of society.
Since truly good relations are neither by quality nor by quantity entirely money-related, there is no need for anyone to counter these strings one by one.
But Iran’s foreign policy, including many valuable but comparably exclusive efforts of the cultural offices, so far was little equipped to take part successfully in German public life. Embassy personnel occasionally appear untrained and often inexperienced in handling business, media or private requests. It starts with slow responses to communication and difficult media relations even with those who are open and unbiased. Failure comes through bureaucratic hurdles, e.g. when an attaché’s successor is not aware of the state of contacts – and troubles do not end with occasional lack of experience in event-management. Funding is a question. Modern political marketing has ample tools to measure success and define key steps. Iranian ambassadors might take more interest in meeting more people, both in and outside their embassy compounds, openly and fearlessly addressing points of public debate – or encourage such meetings of other involved and competent people enjoying public respect.
People-to-people relations are an ever more important political factor. Iran’s president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, has very rightly put German-Iranian relations high on his agenda in a remarkably open interview with German TV RTL earlier this year. It was a very encouraging moment to hear him speak about the longstanding and cordial relations between the people in both countries.
There is a chance and good occasion to put his wishes into practice now. German and European people may deserve a re-assessment of their potential in a restructured and modernized Iranian foreign policy agenda: If not for the governments and their officials, it is the people desiring and struggling for peaceful, friendly and constructive relations for mutual benefit – they have proved this in the past, they are continuing to do so, they always will. Let’s give them a chance.
And as the Chinese writer Yen Yu put it: ‘If you miss your path in the beginning by just a little bit, the more you push ahead and hurry, the more you miss your destination.”
*The author is a government and business consultant in Germany since 25 years, multiple book author and expert on issues of Central Asia and the Middle East