AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 27/2009

Carrot or Stick? Election Violence Upsets Berlin's Stance on Iran

The German government is divided over how to react to the brutal suppression of protests by the regime in Tehran. Some officials want to continue with a dialogue-centered approach, while others are calling for tougher sanctions.


The German Foreign Ministry is a tightly run institution. The ministry's press office, known as "Department 013," monitors contacts between diplomats and the media. With its roughly 30 employees, the department is one of the largest units within the venerable organization. Its mission is to ensure that all communication to the public remains on message and reflects the views of the foreign minister.

Last week, however, the Foreign Ministry exhibited an unexpected range of opinions on the question of how Germany and the West should interact with Iran following its brutal suppression of the protest movement there. Initially, the German government's human rights commissioner, Günter Nooke, made a thinly veiled call for a coup in Iran. "Our policy is far too soft-footed," Nooke, a member of Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union, wrote in an op-ed for the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Germany should "openly encourage those who are calling for an end to the Islamic Republic," Nooke continued.

Two days later, a senior official from the Foreign Ministry voiced an opinion pointing in precisely the opposite direction. In remarks to the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, Gernot Erler, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, warned against seeking conflict. On the contrary, he said, it would be a serious mistake to allow the crisis in Iran to jeopardize negotiations with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program. "There is no realistic alternative to continuing to negotiate with Iran and to convince it of the benefits of cooperative behavior," he said. Any other approach, according to Erler, would go against "our own security interests."

Cooperation or confrontation? It is a contradiction that has defined the foreign policy of Berlin's "grand coalition" government of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats for almost four years, and now it is back on the agenda. China, Russia, Syria and even Cuba have served as theaters in the struggle to define the correct diplomatic approach to authoritarian regimes.

There had been widespread agreement within the German government, however, over how to handle Iran. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wanted to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb at all costs, using negotiations and sanctions -- but not military force.

And when US President Barack Obama took office, it seemed that this approach could be implemented internationally. Indeed, the new administration in Washington had planned a dialogue offensive aimed at Tehran for September.

But the violence in Iran has now foiled this plan. During her visit to Washington on Friday, Chancellor Merkel warned that Germany would "not forget" the Iranian regime's brutality against its citizens. After meeting with Merkel, Obama avoided making any clear pronouncements on how and when the planned talks could begin.

Germany's approach to Iran now revolves increasingly around the question of what is more important: human rights or protection against nuclear weapons? Any intervention in Iran's internal affairs would put the negotiations over the nuclear program at risk, because it would merely anger those in power in Tehran and make them less inclined to pursue talks. Conversely, the Iranian opposition would perceive it as a stab in the back if the West were to negotiate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as if nothing had happened.

Although the chancellor and the foreign minister are not nearly as far apart as their respective party colleagues Nooke and Erler, the first hairline cracks can already be seen. While Merkel called for a "recount" of the votes, thereby blithely intervening in internal Iranian events, Steinmeier limited himself to the vague call to "thoroughly clarify doubts about the course and outcome of the election." The foreign minister and his diplomats anticipate a delay in the planned nuclear negotiations, but they are sticking to their plans. At the same time, officials at the Foreign Ministry have noted with interest that the tone toward Iran is becoming sharper at the Chancellery. How much longer will Berlin's consensus over its Iran policy last?

Calls for more confrontation are growing in the parliament. Kerstin Müller, who is a Bundestag member for the Green Party and who was a senior official at the Foreign Ministry from 2002 until 2005, characterizes Erler's argument as "cynical." "To claim that there is no alternative to the policy of dialogue is nonsense, and it only highlights the level of hopelessness in the West," she says. Müller supports negotiations over the nuclear program, but says that "if the situation continues to escalate, we must also be prepared to look into the alternative of tough sanctions and isolation."

The Christian Democrats' foreign policy experts are no longer ruling out this option. Their foreign policy spokesman, Eckart von Klaeden, asks whether the US's planned dialogue initiative is feasible any more. Iran is threatening "to transform itself from an autocracy into an authoritarian dictatorship," he says. "Obama tripped himself up when he announced negotiations without preconditions, without waiting until the election was over." Klaeden still supports negotiations, but not indefinitely. Eventually, he says, the West must be "prepared to impose tougher sanctions that affect the entire regime, not just the nuclear program."

In a speech to the Bundestag, Philipp Missfelder, a member of parliament for the CDU, noted that such sanctions will be about more than human rights. He proposed reducing economic ties to Iran even further. In this way, he said, "we in Germany can make our own contribution to destabilizing the Ahmadinejad regime."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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© DER SPIEGEL 27/2009
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