Ausgabe 4/2006

Nuclear Dispute with Iran Merkel Pushes Russian Diplomatic Role

German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn't agree with the tough-talking tactics of French President Jacques Chirac, who has indirectly threatened Iran with a nuclear attack. Instead, the German government wants to hinder Tehran's nuclear ambitions via global shuttle diplomacy that includes strong Russian involvement.

Germany's Angela Merkel want Russia's Vladmir Putin to put more pressure on Iran.

Germany's Angela Merkel want Russia's Vladmir Putin to put more pressure on Iran.

In her first few months in office, Angela Merkel has shown particular skill on the international stage. She can now look back in satisfaction on her first official visits as chancellor to Paris, Warsaw and London. Those trips were followed by a brief but glamorous visit with US President George Bush at the White House and a more low-key meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Before meeting with French President Jacques Chirac this Monday in Versailles, she had planned to turn her attention to Germany's numerous domestic problems, including shrinking pensions, a gaping budget deficit and massive unemployment. But then foreign policy got in the way once again.

Iran has been keeping world leaders -- including the German chancellor -- extremely busy of late. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel and his insistence on Tehran's right to pursue a comprehensive nuclear program have left Merkel with no other choice but to spend considerable time telephoning with her own foreign minister, Bush and with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Iran isn't just some temporary hot spot, but possibly the dominant source of conflict these days. At this point, no one can predict how the growing crisis will affect world peace. Promptly after assuming office, President Ahmadinejad publicly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Officials in the West fear that he plans to transform his country into a nuclear power. It would make Iran a member of a club of the powerful that already includes several of the country's neighbors: Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel.

In direct opposition to international demands, Iran resumed its uranium enrichment activities in early January. Since then, Ahmadinejad has made a grandiose show of rejecting western threats, responding with such comments as: "You need us more than we need you." That in many ways is true, since Iran has the world's third-largest oil and second-largest natural gas reserves.

The Iranian president's frightening behavior hasn't just caused considerable apprehension within Germany. Last week, Chirac warned that countries that give terrorists with weapons of mass destruction could face nuclear retaliation from France. That sort of tough-talking rhetoric doesn't sit well with Berlin, however. Indeed, the West is searching for a common position, and Merkel's government is playing a key role in that effort. "We want to prevent Iran from developing into a new source of instability in the Middle East," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

During her first state visits, Merkel was quick to distinguish among what she called "friends" (the United States), "partners" (Russia) and "European allies" (France and Britain). Now that she has defined these relationships, she finds herself involved in a complex game of give-and-take called international diplomacy.

The questions western leaders must ask themselves are extremely difficult to answer: Can the Islamist regime in Tehran still be convinced to reverse its position? How strong is pressure within Iranian society? Do threats work, or could promises be more effective? How can the various temperaments in the West -- ranging from plain-speaking Texan Bush to the etiquette-obsessed Chirac -- be brought together to form a common position, one with which the Russians and the Chinese can agree to or will at least tolerate?

Merkel's focus on foreign policy

Merkel, until recently an opposition leader with expertise in healthcare policy, has plunged into her new foreign policy responsibilities with gusto. The crew of the "Konrad Adenauer" -- the German equivalent of the US president's "Air Force One" -- has been working nonstop. Journalists traveling along who have the temerity to doze off during a flight often find themselves getting a personal wakeup call from the chancellor herself. Then she'll cheekily ask if they've already filed their story for the day. She was hoping to spend a little more time talking about the United States.

Merkel and George Bush got along quite well during her visit to Washington earlier this month.

Merkel and George Bush got along quite well during her visit to Washington earlier this month.

George Bush is clearly Merkel's most important ally -- but not the only one. She knows full well that if she wants to move ahead with her Iran policy, she'll have to get the Chinese and the Kremlin on board. China and Russia, both veto powers at the UN Security Council, could cripple the European negotiating initiative at any time. It was Kofi Annan who reminded Merkel in a confidential telephone call last week that rejection by the Russians and the Chinese would only encourage the Iranians to move ahead with their plans. Tehran is sure to interpret the failure of a UN resolution as a free ticket to a nuclear future.

This is why Merkel has distanced herself from the tough-talking approach with which Chirac drew attention to himself last Thursday afternoon. The French president, under pressure on the domestic front, issued a barely veiled threat of nuclear attack against Iran. It was an appearance in the true Gaulic tradition, one that seemed more suited to feeding the nostalgia of a declining world power than to resolving conflict.

At the Chancellery in Berlin, Merkel couldn't believe her ears. She demanded the original text of Chirac's speech to be obtained without delay. Chirac's aggressive statement had not been coordinated with anyone, including Merkel or Foreign Minister Steinmeier. The chancellor is sure to mention the issue in her face-to-face discussion with Chirac on Monday. She will accept his claim that his comments were misinterpreted. But from here onwards, she will also surely mistrust him just a bit.

Solo ventures à la Chirac are an embarrassment to the Europeans, undermining the collective authority they seek to generate. To make matters worse, the Russians are becoming increasingly irritated with their European neighbors, who seem incapable of discrete cooperation.

Pushing for Russian involvement

Nevertheless, Merkel has made every effort to get the Russians more involved. When she visited Moscow last week, she promoted the approach of referring the Iran matter to the UN Security Council. A "red line" had been crossed, she said. Unlike Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, Merkel is not urging quick action. She prefers consensus over public outrage.

Merkel initially plans to achieve broad support within the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for referring the matter to the Security Council. While in Washington, she also attempted to gain support for her approach with Bush, who by nature is less willing to be so patient.

Putin, clearly alarmed by the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power, was an attentive listener. His neighborhood is already a very dangerous place. Parts of Russia's massive border with countries like China, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and North Korea could be likened to a giant tinderbox. On the other hand, the Kremlin wants to continue doing business with the regime in Tehran, business that includes construction of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr and the delivery of surface-to-air missiles. Trade between the two countries was worth €1.6 billion in 2004.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for Israel's destruction.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for Israel's destruction.

Merkel asked Putin to take Iranian President Ahmadinejad seriously. Germany once had a politician whom no one took seriously at first, she said in an allusion to Adolf Hitler, who initially forged an alliance with the Russians before attacking them. Then she asked Putin how he intended to exert pressure on Tehran, other than through the UN Security Council. Putin is afraid that referring the matter to the Security Council Iran could prompt Iran to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He is also worried about Iranian Revolutionary Guards fanning out into Russia's Muslim regions, which could cause a dramatic escalation of the situation internationally.

During her Moscow visit, Merkel also inquired about the Russian initiative Putin presented to the men in Tehran a few months ago. Last November, the Kremlin proposed forming a joint venture with Iran to enrich uranium and then sell the nuclear fuel worldwide, with Moscow envisioning the two countries splitting the profits from the proposed venture. According to the plan, Iran's end of the deal would merely involve its converting uranium into uranium hexafluoride, a gas, at its Isfahan nuclear plant. Russia would then transport and enrich the uranium hexafluoride.

  • Part 1: Merkel Pushes Russian Diplomatic Role
  • Part 2

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