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Germany Can’t Stop Loving Iran

After repeated attempts to thwart U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s latest moves have left Berlin with few options

Matthias Küntzel
February 13, 2020
Photos: O. Anschuetz/ullstein bild via Getty Images; Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Wilhelm II shakes hands with Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, 1902; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, shakes hands with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas after a joint press conference in Tehran, June 10, 2019Photos: O. Anschuetz/ullstein bild via Getty Images; Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photos: O. Anschuetz/ullstein bild via Getty Images; Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Wilhelm II shakes hands with Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, 1902; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, shakes hands with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas after a joint press conference in Tehran, June 10, 2019Photos: O. Anschuetz/ullstein bild via Getty Images; Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last week, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, mistakenly congratulated the Iranian regime on the 41st anniversary of the Khomenist revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran. On Feb. 7, the president announced that this year he would not send a congratulatory telegram to Iran’s rulers. But Steinmeier’s change of heart was too late—according to the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel, a congratulatory telegram had already been sent by the Federal President’s Office to the German Embassy in Tehran and then forwarded to the Iranian authorities due to a “breakdown” in the communication system.

The contradiction between the delivery of the official congratulations and the German president’s public attempt to disavow the substance of its message revealed the Janus-headed nature of Germany’s relationship to Iran. If there is any country that might be expected to distance itself from Iran, it is Germany because of its history and its special relationship with Israel. But the opposite is the case. Germany of all European countries is also the weakest link in the chain when it comes to renewed sanctions. Why?


Many believe that the special German-Iranian relationship has to do with German economic interests, but this is only a secondary aspect. In 2017, German exports to Iran comprised only about 0.2% of total German exports. In the same year, Iran was 33rd among recipients of European exports, behind countries like Kazakhstan and Serbia. Other causes are more important, but less discussed.

For example: the historical dimension. Germany and Iran have been allied since the beginning of the last century; a relationship that began because Iran (then called Persia) required foreign technical support for the development of infrastructure and industry. Persian leaders could have turned to other European countries for assistance but distrusted the imperial powers of Great Britain and France, and so looked to Germany. Germany needed Persia because it was the only country rich in raw materials but as of yet “unclaimed” in the 19th-century struggle for colonies among Europe’s “great powers.” Thus, in the mid-1920s, Germany provided Iran with both the backbone of its industrial infrastructure and the trained personnel needed to run it. Soon the “German work ethic” gained a literally legendary reputation, which was later exploited by Nazi propaganda. Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazi share of Iranian imports rose from 11% to 43%, while the German share of Iranian exports rose from 19% to 47%. Another aspect of the Nazi period, which continues to be important in Iran, was pointed out in 1996 by Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani: “Our relations have always been good. Both [peoples] are of the Aryan race.”

In 1952, West Germany again became Iran’s leading trading partner, a position it held almost continuously until the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Even then, the country’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stated in a 1979 interview that, “we feel no special enmity toward the German people or the Federal Republic. … We want friendly relations at all levels.” According to Peter Rudolf, a researcher from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Germany’s relationship with Iran is thus based on “historically shaped strategic preferences.” Still today, the website of the German ambassador in Tehran gushes over this connection: “German-Iranian relations have a long tradition and great potential. Let us work together to further deepen the good relationship.” It goes without saying that these good relations over the last century have always been with rulers who have oppressed the Iranian people. Still today, the German government shows little solidarity with ordinary Iranians, who are being gunned down, tortured, and thrown in prison by the regime.

Among the six nations that negotiated the Iran deal, known as the P5+1 and including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—plus Germany, there is a second peculiarity exhibited by Germany alone. Alongside Iran, Germany was the only non-nuclear-weapon state involved in the negotiations. While nuclear-weapon states seek to keep their privilege against all others, power-oriented “have-nots” are interested in reducing this privilege as much as possible. Germany and Japan are among the non-nuclear-weapon states that have caught up with the “haves” on the technological front, and have therefore gained a nuclear option—the status that Iran is now trying to achieve as well.

As non-nuclear-weapon states, Germany and Iran both share an interest in interpreting the Non-Proliferation Treaty generously. That is why Germany has always been in favor of conceding to Iran the right to enrich uranium. And that is also why, until today, the extent of the danger posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of Shiite Islamists is hardly mentioned in German public debates. To quote Peter Rudolf again: “The fact that despite intelligence reports to the contrary, the German government tends to downplay the [Iranian] nuclear issue is quite puzzling.”

Back in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration launched a major diplomatic campaign against the threat of an Iranian bomb, this fact was not just puzzling, but a serious bone of contention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton prohibited all American firms from trading with Iran—an effort at sanctions that was systematically undermined by intensified German exports to Iran. Hossain Mousavian, Iran’s ambassador to Germany at that time, mischievously recorded the great delight this caused in Tehran: “Iranian decision-makers were well aware in the 1990s of Germany’s significant role in breaking the economic chains with which the United States had surrounded Iran. … Iran viewed its dialogue and relations with Germany as an important means toward the circumvention of the anti-Iranian policies of the United States.”

In September 2004, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer from the Green Party confirmed Mousavian’s assessment in a speech disseminated by the German government: “We Europeans have constantly advised our Iranian partners in their own well-founded interest to view us as their protective shield.” Europe as the shield between Iran and America: Not to protect the United States from the Islamists, but the Islamists from the United States. Such a metaphor could only occur to someone who sees America as the adversary and the Khomenist revolution as meriting protection.

Hence, the current split between the United States and Germany on Iran is nothing new. It has been affecting bilateral relations for decades, and it is therefore wrong to pin the blame for the current trans-Atlantic rift solely on the American side, as many observers do, even if Trump’s belligerent megaphone diplomacy is unhelpful.


German politicians were outraged by Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of a “split between the United States and the Europeans on Iran.” Most German media fumed with anger fueled by wounded pride.

The P5+1 negotiations over the nuclear deal had marked an elevation of Germany’s international status: For the first time, Germany was able to shape global policy together with the five veto powers of the United Nations. Indeed, Germany wielded considerable influence in the talks since it was represented twice: through both its national representative, and through the EU’s lead negotiator, Helga Schmid. Schmid—a former office manager for former Foreign Minister Fischer who has good relations with Chancellor Merkel—established herself as an authoritative figure in the talks with the Iranian side. What could possibly go wrong?

Second, for Berlin, the JCPOA served as a model for how much more could be achieved through patient diplomacy than by Iraq-style U.S. military operations. It was regarded as the prototype of a European foreign policy conducted on totally different lines than those of the United States.

On Jan. 15, 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas explained how he sees this difference in the Bundestag: “We rely on reasonable diplomacy instead of maximum pressure” like the United States does. Maas forgot to add that Germany has no other choice. Germany is an economic superpower but a military dwarf. As soon as there is a threat of military action, Germany is no longer relevant. Maas, however, presents this shortcoming as a moral triumph: The Iran nuclear deal is held up as the best example of the correctness of the German insistence that changes can only be achieved through dialogue. Little thought, however, is given to what exactly 40 years of “dialogue with Tehran” have actually achieved.

In reality, framing “diplomacy” and “pressure” as opposites is spurious. It is an example of the “very real danger that distaste for Donald Trump is blinding European leaders to the realpolitik of the situation,” according to David Ibsen, the president of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

Donald Trump, as both a person and a politician, has opened the floodgates of German resentment against the United States. His withdrawal from the nuclear deal caused this resentment—which is based on a mixture of legitimate critique of Trump, unfounded anti-Americanism, and great-power fantasies—to boil over: A rabid president, went the message, had torn a masterpiece of European diplomacy to shreds.

Illustrating Ibsen’s comment about “blindness” to realpolitik, Germany couples its rejection of the American “maximum pressure” approach to Tehran with an unwillingness to support other means of restraining Iranian aggression. For instance, Germany has refused to offer political support for the U.S.-led coalition effort dubbed “Operation Sentinel” in the Strait of Hormuz, with the aim of preventing sabotage of maritime vessels in the Persian Gulf. This also applies to the statement by Norbert Röttgen, a member of the conservative CDU party and a leading foreign-policy spokesman in the Bundestag, that Germany is pursuing “its own and fundamentally different Iran policy,” and to Der Spiegel’s appraisal that “leaders in Berlin and Brussels believe that Iran is reacting with restraint to pressure and provocation from the U.S.”


Whatever criticisms may be made of Donald Trump, his statement on May 8, 2018, that “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail” and his decision to leave the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the Iran nuclear deal enacted under the Obama administration—was a first and important step to ending Iran’s fear game. The assertion of American strength has changed the dynamic of dealing with Tehran.

In contrast, the E-3 nations—Germany, Britain and France—are still operating under an atmosphere of blackmail and intimidation by Tehran, which includes Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s announcement on Jan. 20 that “we will withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty if the Europeans continue their improper behavior or send Iran’s file to the Security Council.” This statement can only be interpreted as a threat to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Tehran, however, bluffs about strength that it does not have. Iran has been greatly weakened by its expensive wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, and the discontent and resistance on the part of the Iranian people has been growing from day to day. The U.S. airstrike that killed the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, along with a top commander of Iraq’s Iran-allied Shia militia forces, exposed Iran’s vulnerability. The sooner the E-3 free themselves from Tehran’s pressure tactics, the better.

Zarif’s recent warning responds to the fact that on Jan. 14, Britain, France, and Germany triggered the JCPOA’s dispute mechanism, thereby starting the clock on a process that could result in the “snapback” of U.N. and EU sanctions on Iran.

In the coming months, the course will be set. The E-3 states have two options: The first option is to jointly or independently ensure that U.N. sanctions are indeed reinstated through the snapback stipulation. The completely insufficient nuclear deal of 2015 would then become a historical relic, but diplomatic isolation and economic pressure could create the conditions for a new and better deal.

The other option is for the E-3 countries to avoid new sanctions and continue clinging to a deal that the United States rejects and that Iran ignores.

The latter option could hand a great diplomatic victory to Tehran, since the nuclear deal stipulates that after exactly five years, in October 2020, Iran will regain access to the international conventional arms market, which includes “battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, [and] missiles or missile systems,” as specified in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, Annex B(5). At the same time, international law will no longer prohibit Iran from exporting such weapons to other countries or its proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. “When the embargo … is lifted next year,” rejoiced President Rouhani in 2019, “it will be a huge political success.”

Iran has already signed military agreements with Russia and China since the JCPOA entered into force in 2015. According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “the pacts cover strategic and military matters, and Iran is reportedly exploring a future $10 billion deal to import Russian T-90 tanks, artillery systems, planes and helicopters.”

Has Germany already made its decision? “We do not strive to use comprehensive sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council,” said a German federal government spokesman on Jan. 15, 2020. “We want to preserve the [JCPOA] agreement and reach a diplomatic solution within the agreement,” added Foreign Minister Maas. “We call on Iran to participate constructively in the negotiating process that is now beginning.”

German government officials refer to the possibility that the time limits imposed on the JCPOA’s Joint Commission could be extended by consensus in order to postpone “the negotiating process that is now beginning” until the U.S. presidential election in November 2020. A victory for the Democrats, some hope, could still save the nuclear deal.

However, whether such a consensus for postponement can be achieved is still an open question. Moscow and Beijing might applaud it, but it is unclear whether France and Britain would support this course, which could result in a strengthening of Iran’s ability to wage wars. A review of public statements by Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron from the past six months reveals divergent positions within the E-3 nations: Germany likes to pose as a mediator between East and West, defending the JCPOA tooth and nail while fighting Washington’s “maximum pressure,” but Johnson and Macron focus more on the Atlantic alliance, seek to replace the JCPOA, and partially agree with Trump’s “pressure” campaign.

Instead of clinging to the failed JCPOA, whose provisions will soon expire anyway, Germany should use the end of this deal as an opportunity to fundamentally change its policy on Iran. Its current relationship is not based on a rational consideration of interests, but on nostalgia, illusion, and disregard for Israel’s survival interests. It is time to finally support those who are rising up against the Iranian terrorist regime instead of the butchers in the regime. It is necessary to use severe sanctions to force the regime to abandon its nuclear weapons ambition, so as to avoid the alternative of war. Finally, the need for the country that was responsible for the Holocaust yesterday to stop courting the country that denies the Holocaust today is long overdue.


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Matthias Küntzel is a political scientist based in Hamburg, and the author ofJihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism And The Roots Of 9/11 andGermany and Iran: From The Aryan Axis To The Nuclear Threshold.