By Mohammad Hashemi

Does Merkel follow Trump’s footsteps on Iran?

September 27, 2019

The talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday (September 24) in New York were held at the height of tensions between Tehran and Washington.

It was Angela Merkel's first meeting with an Iranian president as she had avoided such meetings since coming to office in 2005. German media had attributed Merkel’s reluctance to meet Iranian officials to what they described as Iran’s international and regional stances, including its policy towards Israel.

The meeting came shortly after more signs emerged pointing to collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Germany, France and the UK joined the U.S. in blaming Iran for the September 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s key oil plants which Yemeni Houthis claimed responsibility. 

EU backs new ‘Trump deal’ 

In a joint statement they also said they continue to support the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran but they added the time has come for Iran to start talks on a longer-term, more comprehensive agreement dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, its regional and missile program, just as Donald Trump’s administration has pushed.  

The statement drew a strong condemnation from Iran and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded that Britain, France and Germany's "paralysis in fulfilling their obligations w/o US permission has been clear since May 2018," when Washington withdrew from the accord. "No new deal before compliance w/ current one," Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

Following the meeting with the Iranian president, Merkel said Iran’s demands for U.S. sanctions relief were “unrealistic”. 

“I would welcome it if it came to talks between the United States and Iran but it won’t work that all sanctions are first taken off the table and then there are talks. I think that is not realistic,” Merkel said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. 

The demands that the German chancellor called “unrealistic” were part and parcel of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - commonly referred to as the "nuclear deal" – signed between Iran and world powers. Under the deal, Iran undertook to put limits on its nuclear program in exchange for termination of nuclear-related sanctions.

All Macron’s initiatives 

In New York, Rouhani also met earlier with French President Emmanuel Macron in a meeting that lasted for 100 minutes. In spite of its long history of misconduct towards Iran both in bilateral relations and during nuclear talks leading to the conclusion of the JCPOA, France has relatively had better diplomatic relations with Iran. 

France proposed offering Iran a $15-billion credit line to persuade Tehran to fully comply with the nuclear deal after the country started to reduce its commitments under the deal following the failure by Europeans to secure Iran’s interests.

Macron also invited Iranian Foreign Minister to France back in August, during the G7 summit and held several lengthy phone calls with Iranian president over the past months. The French president dispatched his top advisor Emmanuel Bonne to Tehran to hold talks with the country's officials with the aim of contributing to easing tensions in the Persian Gulf region. 

Having said that and given Germany’s status as a leading member of the European Union and an economic power, why unlike Paris, has Berlin not played a visible and significant role with regards to saving Iran’s nuclear deal? Moreover, considering Germany and the United States’ deeply intertwined relationship, could Berlin adopt an independent foreign policy from Washington in a bid to keep Iran nuclear deal alive?

When I posed these questions to diplomats, officials and foreign policy experts in Germany, some of them simply declined to answer, while others said they prefer not to discuss these issues in the media “at the present time.” Their reluctance to talk could be comprehensible to some extent, given the complicated and contradictory stances of Berlin towards the nuclear deal. But perhaps more concerning is their fear of becoming the target of powerful German media outlets that are opposed to any improvement in the relations between Germany and Iran. One prominent German historian and political expert wrote to me: “If I gave an interview to an Iranian newspaper, my enemies would use it against me”.


Germany’s role in nuclear talks 

Since reunification in 1990, Germany has embarked upon a new course of playing a greater role in international relations, especially in the Middle East. 

From the very start of the intense diplomatic efforts and technical negotiations over Iranian nuclear program, Germany turned into one of the key players in the talks and had always sought to adopt balanced stances. However, after Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, it seems the Europeans and Germany atop, adopted a dual and contradictory policy with respect to saving the nuclear deal.

Abbas Aslani, a political analyst based in Tehran, says “EU countries including Germany and France have participated in the (nuclear) negotiations. I remember back then and afterwards when the Americans were talking about withdrawing from the nuclear deal, Germany was active in order to stop that process and to try to save the nuclear deal.” 

Germany has always criticized the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and worked with France and the European Union to set up an alternative financing mechanism that would allow European firms to do business with Tehran despite U.S. financial sanctions. Since its inception last January, the EU-Iran trade mechanism, known as INSTEX, has been led by three presidents, all German nationals but without much success. In August, Bernd Erbel, former Germany’s ambassador to Iran was forced to resign just days after his appointment, apparently for comments he made a month earlier criticizing Israel and supporting Iran’s missile program. Since then Berlin has appointed another German diplomat Michael Bock to head this mechanism. 

Moreover, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s brief visit to Iran in June was described by German media and politicians as “too little, too late” with no tangible results. Instead, Maas said during a news conference with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran that “we are working to preserve the JCPOA, but we cannot work miracles.”
 
An element of 'immaturity' among Germans

Meanwhile, it seems Germany is convinced that it would be in its best interests to let France take the lead as part of efforts to salvage the nuclear deal. 

Riccardo Alcaro, a senior fellow with the Transatlantic Program of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome, says Berlin’s decision is due to the fact that “Macron seems to get on relatively well with Trump (who is very critical of Germany instead. Also because Germany has more pressing issues to think about as far as its relationship with the U.S. is concerned, especially the possibility that Trump adopts high tariffs on imports of European cars (the German car sector would suffer considerably from this)”. 

Alcaro further refers to an element of “immaturity” among Germans that keep them from taking bold foreign policy positions.

This lack of tangible action by Germany could be interpreted in the context of Germany's dependence on the United States for its security and defense. “France has developed a culture of strategic autonomy, has significantly more capable armed forces than Germany, and has of course also acquired nuclear power status since the 1960s,” Alcaro noted. 

Merkel out of options 

Based on the foregoing, one could argue that Berlin may not have a lot of options under the current circumstances and because Merkel’s coalition government has had enough problems to deal with in regard to domestic and political issues.  

Alcaro attributes this reluctance to take action to “political expediency”. “Merkel is on her way out and her ruling coalition with the SPD is fragile. This said, Germany's quieter role with regard to the JCPOA is also a function of France's activism, as France is in a way doing the job for Germany (and the rest of the EU) too. The upholding of the JCPOA is still extremely important for Germany.”

Limited chances of success

Trump’s belligerent policy toward Iran has exposed Europe’s principal players’ weaknesses in the face of the American hegemony. Until Europe does not want to confront its own weaknesses and adopt an independent foreign policy from the United States, it would have no option but to act as an obedient player and follower of U.S. policies. 

“A break from the U.S. is conceivable only if the U.S. were to continuously pursue a policy aimed at weakening and dividing the EU, but that would need to happen for several years before Germany reaches the conclusion that it has to 'decouple' from the U.S. And even if it does take that decision, it will find it very hard to implement,” Alcaro remarked. 

Until then, the chances of success for Germany’s diplomatic intervention in the Iranian crisis are very limited.

Leave a Comment

1 + 11 =