Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Germany must go beyond rhetoric on Iran

Photo Credit: European People's Party - EPP/Flickr

Photo Credit: European People's Party - EPP/Flickr

While the German government aggressively pursues economic reform within the eurozone, it remains remarkably inactive in foreign policy. Be it Libya, Syria, or Mali, Europe’s largest economy refuses to assume responsibility on the international stage. As a principled international actor, however, Berlin must do its fair share to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Germany’s leading liberal weekly Die Zeit recently discussed Germany’s inconsistent foreign policy. While Berlin shrouds itself in non-interventionism, abstaining from multilateral operations in Libya and Mali, it has nevertheless become the third-largest exporter of arms in the last five years. The projection of German pacifism preached by Berlin in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War does not conform to reality.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on April 2, 2013, former German Defense Secretary Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and foreign policy consultant Ulf Gartzke argued that Germany “must have Israel’s back,” particularly in the context of growing Iranian threats. The reality of the 4 billion euro trade volume between Germany and Iran, however, makes German pressure on Iran unlikely. The authors omit Germany´s reluctance to enforce sanctions while arguing for German military assertiveness to defend Israel.

Israeli officials have long encouraged greater German backbone. In June 2011, Shaul Mofaz, chairman of Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, urged Germany to “have a clear policy towards Iran” and to “support tough sanctions.” Yet German arms and weapons trade to Iran increased in 2012. Germany’s Zollkriminalamt (ZKA), which responsible for the enforcement of trade regulations, reported 136 violations regarding weapons proliferation in 2012, an increase of 35 from the previous year. ZKA President Norbert Drude expressed particular concern over Iran’s “aggressive behavior of appropriation.” Three quarters of the violations involve Iranian demands for technology involved in the production of nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry. Germany has signed onto the sanctions regime of the United States and the European Union, but the reality of German law-enforcement and political commitment is questionable.

Germany has a history of granting the Islamic Republic of Iran diplomatic favors, dating back to 1984 when Hans-Dietrich Genscher became the first Western foreign minister to visit the Islamic Republic, effectively ending Iran’s isolation despite Tehran’s active involvement in terrorism. German politicians sought a “critical dialogue” about human rights, though the critical aspects of discussions fell by the wayside as trade increased. Iranian threats of annihilating Israel did not stop German-Iranian parliamentary exchanges, nor did they stop Claudia Roth, the chairwoman of the Green Party, from giving Iranian ambassador Reza Sheikh Attar a ‘high five’ at the Munich security conference in February, no matter that Kurds have fingered Attar as complicit in the massacre of Kurds during his tenure as governor of the Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces between 1980 and 1985.

Angela Merkel will not lead Germany to a more assertive or principled position. Germany’s population remains overwhelmingly skeptical towards military involvement. And yet, Germany could do better. If Germany is serious about human rights and Middle East peace, it is time to enforce economic sanctions against Iran. The short-term costs will bolster German leadership and avert a far greater long-term crisis.

Niklas Anzinger and Ludwig Jung are, respectively, interns at the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC.

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