Assertive Germany muddles Iran issue

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, in a speech in Moscow on December 8 dwelt on the western attempts lately to maintain the model of a unipolar world order. He said the European Union’s dalliance with the idea of itself being a pole in a multipolar system is dissipating and warned of Germany’s recent policies in the direction of preserving “its claims to full leadership” of the EU.

Indeed, with Britain’s exit from the EU and France embroiled in domestic crisis, Germany’s time has come to assume the leadership of Europe. A disconcerting template here is Germany’s aggressive return to militarism. Only last month, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer called for a major increase in military spending in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

German militarism had been lying dormant for decades. Lest it be forgotten, the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) at its founding in 1955, had 44 generals and admirals sworn in who all belonged previously to Hitler’s Wehrmacht, above all from its general staff. Of the 14,900 professional soldiers who made up the officers corps in 1959, there were 12,360 Wehrmacht officers, 300 of whom came from the leadership of the dreaded SS. 

No doubt, Germany did well to keep its head below the parapet and conceal the fact of the Bundeswehr being a continuity of the Wehrmacht. Way back in 2005, Spiegel magazine wrote, “Today the Bundeswehr has become one of the most powerful tools available to German foreign-policy makers. Since reunification, the once cumbersome organisation has undergone a process of constant streamlining, modernisation and technical upgrading… Bundeswehr… is evolving from a defence force into an interventionist army.”

Fundamentally, Germany seems to be apprehensive about a strong Iran, which might stand in the way of its own future expansionism in the regions surrounding Iran.

Indeed, in the most recent years, the traditions of the German ruling elite and its militarism have begun to emerge. We are witnessing the transformation of the Bundeswehr into a war machine capable of defending German interests around the world. 

In a speech last month to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Bundeswehr’s founding, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that even under the incoming Joe Biden presidency, Europe will not be as important to the US as it used to be, and, therefore, “I see our country as having a dual responsibility” —  German leadership of Europe and a stronger role for Berlin within NATO. 

The German defence budget was already increased last year by 10 percent. Steinmeier said in justification that soldiers have “a right to be equipped with the best possible kit this country can provide them, equipment that provides them with the best possible protection and enables them to fulfil the mission defined by the political sphere.”

Steinmeier said, “The experiences of soldiers who … served in combat, where they were wounded physically or psychologically … form part of our experiences. Their battles are our battles, even if indeed peace prevails here in Germany. This is not merely something we can expect of our society. It should also be important to our society. Society owes you this empathy and interest.” 

Traditions chillingly reminiscent of the 1930s are surfacing — the ruling elite urging the entire German nation to identify with militarism. The implications of all this will become clear in German policies. 

In immediate terms, the EU stance on the situation around Iran is becoming crucial. Germany’s attitude toward the Iran nuclear issue has undergone change, hinting at a possibly new EU policy that seeks to achieve what the US president Donald Trump failed to achieve through the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign. 

In an interview with Der Spiegel earlier in the month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “A return to the previous (2015 Iran nuclear) agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of ‘nuclear agreement plus,’ which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region. Iran also needs to play a different role in the region. We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran. I have already coordinated with my French and British counterparts on this.”

This is the first time that a German foreign minister has explicitly called for a “better” deal with Iran. Meanwhile, Miguel Berger, secretary of state of the German foreign office, reinforced Maas’s message by pledging a “firm reaction” to Iran’s role in the region “with sanctions if necessary.” 

Significantly, these remarks were likewise made in the context of a need for an “updated” nuclear agreement with Iran. It is a hypocritical stance, since Germany had failed to honour its commitments under the 2015 agreement and is well aware of Iran’s wariness to enter into any new talks with the West due to its experience of other signatories reneging on the nuclear deal. 

Fundamentally, Germany seems to be apprehensive about a strong Iran, which might stand in the way of its own future expansionism in the regions surrounding Iran. Germany knows fully well that Iran is not after acquiring nuclear weapons, while on the contrary, Germany’s own plans to move in the direction of developing nuclear missiles at some point remain an open issue. 

Suffice to say, Germany is not only not ready to engage substantively with Iran, but appears to be also not in any hurry to push for a swift US return to the Iran nuclear deal. There is no other logical explanation for the recent joint statement of December 7 by the E3 (Germany, France and UK), which is not at all helpful under the prevailing circumstances where the priority lies in the Joe Biden Administration taking tangible steps that break the stalemate and allowing negotiations to commence as early as possible. 

Without doubt, Germany has further complicated the situation by demanding new concessions from Iran concerning other “non-nuclear”  issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence that did not form part of the 2015 agreement. If Germany were to have acted in good faith, it should have focused its messaging on encouraging Biden to rejoin the 2015 agreement swiftly and unconditionally. 

Meanwhile, on December 3, Germany delivered to Israel the first of four advanced German-made warships equipped with rocket and missile defence systems, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and an upgraded launching pad for Israel’s newest attack helicopters. The Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, called them “one of the most advanced war machines in the world, which poses a significant leap forward in the Israeli military’s ability to ensure our strength at sea and in naval operations.” 

The bottom line is that Germany is rejecting the objective trends towards the formation of a multipolar world. Its game plan is on the one hand to lead the EU with European sovereignty as its motto, while on the other hand to strengthen the European pillar of the NATO, which enables Germany to pursue a security policy in areas from the Sahel to the Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East. Germany will define its regional policy interests together with the US but in a balanced partnership with a greater role in political decision-making. 

Cover photo: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin attended ceremony on the arrival of first of four German-made corvettes, Haifa, Israel, Dec. 2, 2020. 

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