Merkel in Washington Iranian Nukes and German Prostitutes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with US President George Bush. Her agenda is focused on salvaging the international community's united front against Iran's nuclear ambitions. Talking point two is stemming prostitution at the World Cup.

By in Berlin

Merkel's visit to Washington in January was a success. The world is hoping this one is too.

Merkel's visit to Washington in January was a success. The world is hoping this one is too.

"A routine visit" is how diplomats in Berlin are referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's trip to the United States this week. A bit of politics. A bit of business. A speech before the American Jewish Committee's 100th birthday gala. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Given the recently tumultuous history of US-German relations, the mundane nature of the visit itself would be news. Under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder, back-patting and friendly overtures between Berlin and Washington had become something of a rarity, particularly after Schröder chose to use his opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq as a campaign issue during his re-election in 2002.

But with major decisions on how the international community should handle Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions looming, calling Merkel's trip "routine" would be disingenuous on either side of the Atlantic. With European heavyweights Britain, France and Italy sidelined by domestic political wrangling, Germany is seemingly becoming Bush's go-to European partner. And when it comes to Iran, Merkel is quickly taking on the role of trying to hold the often quarrelsome international community together.

Hard-edged diplomacy

The job promises to be a difficult one. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had failed to comply with a United Nations Security Council request to cease the enrichment of uranium. Now, it's up to the council to come up with an appropriate response. Following talks which ended Tuesday in Paris, the United States, Britain and France back a proposal to equip the IAEA with "mandatory force" should Iran continue not to comply with international demands. "Diplomacy has to be hard-edged. Isolation is what we believe will work best," said US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns on Tuesday.

But both China and Russia -- veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- are wary of formulating a hard-nosed resolution that could be enforced by council-backed sanctions. Indeed, Russia has even recently announced that it is looking at whether to assist Iran in the building of two new nuclear reactors.

Such musings, not surprisingly, are not well received in Washington. US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said on Tuesday that America may try to convince Russia and China to abstain from a council vote on Iran. Should one or both veto an Iran resolution, the United States would even be prepared to build an international coalition to impose sanctions independent of the world body, Bolton said.

Germany sees its role as that of preventing such a disintegration of the international front against Iran's alleged attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. "From my point of view, the unanimity of the Security Council is more important than a somewhat stronger resolution passed with abstentions," Merkel's conservative colleague Ruprecht Polenz, who is also the head of the Bundestag's foreign relations committee, told the DPA news agency. "Iran would see this as a signal that the international community is breaking apart."

Germany's integral role

Merkel is trying to walk the same tightrope between the US sense of urgency and the Russian feelings of friendliness for Iran. Following a visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week -- during which she failed to win Putin's support for international sanctions against Iran -- Merkel tried to find the common ground between the two positions. "We are very interested for the world community, as it has been from the start, to work together and show Iran that we want to work by diplomatic methods," she said. "But it is necessary for Iran to keep to the agreements that it has committed itself to. We are not talking about banning Iran from using nuclear energy for civilian goals, but it must keep to its obligations."

Iran itself has recognized Germany's importance in the ongoing international deliberations. The head of the foreign relations committee in the Iranian parliament on Tuesday even suggested that Germany take on the role as intermediary between Iran and the international community. Germany on Wednesday declined the offer, preferring instead to spend its efforts on finding agreement within the Security Council.

It is this message that Merkel carries with her to Washington on Wednesday. The conflict cannot be solved militarily, the United States needs to slow down to make sure the rest of the Security Council remains on message, and Russia needs to react firmly when Iran ignores the concerns of the international community.

"Germany is already playing an integral role in the Iran diplomacy," said Karsten Voigt, the advisor on US relations in the German Foreign Ministry, in the run-up to Merkel's trip. The meeting with Bush "is important for the course of action and should help clarify the next steps."

US ire over German prostitutes

But Iran isn’t the only item on the Bush-Merkel agenda this week. High up on the US president's list of talking points is concern about the rise in prostitution expected in Germany when it hosts the World Cup this summer. While prostitution is legal in Germany, there is concern that many women -- particularly those illegally brought to Germany from Eastern Europe and further afield -- could be forced into selling their bodies to meet the increase in demand.

"It is an outrage that the German government is currently facilitating prostitution and we believe women who will be exploited will be treated as commodities," said Christopher Smith, a Republican member of the House of Representatives and chairman of the House committee on human rights. "President Bush has very strong views on this issue and will make them known to the German chancellor, who will be asked to step up for women who are about to be exploited."

Some expect as many as 40,000 additional prostitutes may flock to Germany during the month-long soccer tournament to augment Germany's 400,000 legal sex workers. Germany, together with the German Football Association (DFB), launched a program in March aimed at combating forced prostitution and human trafficking. German officials have thus far refrained from replying to Smith's comments.


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