Can Merkel Stop Bush? Iran Crisis To Top Agenda of US Trip

The sounds of saber rattling against the mullah regime in Iran are getting louder in Washington. When Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to the United States this week, German politicians at both ends of the political spectrum will expect her to voice clear opposition to further military escapades. But Merkel prefers quiet diplomacy.

Merkel and Bush at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm in June: The German chancellor prefers to avoid public conflicts with the American president.
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Merkel and Bush at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm in June: The German chancellor prefers to avoid public conflicts with the American president.

In Germany, Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg is hard to beat when it comes to being pro-American. The young parliamentarian and member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) is from the town of Kulmbach in northern Bavaria. He is an avowed advocate of strong trans-Atlantic relations, and he travels to the United States regularly to cultivate relationships with both Republicans and Democrats in Washington. Whenever anti-Americanism rears its ugly head, Guttenberg, his party's highest-ranking foreign policy expert, is quick to raise the red flag.

But Guttenberg has had a few doubts about his American friends lately. During a visit to Washington in October, he noticed a troubling change in the mood among his counterparts in the US Congress whenever the subject of Iran was brought up. "The language has become sharper in the United States," he said, "and not just among the so-called neocons. Even Democrats are beginning to talk about a military strike."

This has made him apprehensive. "We must ask the United States to provide proof to back up their accusations against Iran," he says. Guttenberg hasn't forgotten how claims that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's possessed weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Until now, says Guttenberg, the notion that Tehran is smuggling weapons to Afghanistan and that Iranian al Quds brigades are operating inside Iraq is little more than a rumor. "But it's important," he says, "that the Americans provide us with solid evidence."

The government in Berlin is paying especially close attention these days to reports by Guttenberg and other German politicians who travel to the United States regularly. The chancellor will meet with US President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas this Friday and Saturday. Bush has invited Merkel to his ranch, the place where he has shown a particular fondness for being photographed wearing a lumberjack shirt and wielding a German-made chainsaw.

A lot is at stake for Merkel during this trip. American saber rattling against Tehran is becoming increasingly threatening. In mid-October, Bush warned that the dispute over Iran's nuclear weapons program could escalate into a "World War III." Vice President Dick Cheney, a consummate hardliner, has threatened Tehran with "serious consequences," which, as everyone knows, means military attacks.

Norman Podhoretz, one of America's most prominent neoconservative journalists and a man who has privately urged Bush to bomb Iran, already sees his country embroiled in a "World War IV" against what he calls "Islamofascism" (the Cold War being the third for Podhoretz), and "hopes and prays" that the American president will bomb Iran before it's too late. In late September the US Senate adopted a resolution branding Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and the candidates in the American presidential election are practically falling over each other in their hawkish rhetoric. Rudy Giuliani, the current Republican frontrunner, has even said that he would consider attacks with tactical nuclear weapons.

Berlin is taking all this talk of war so seriously that high-ranking diplomats are already scrutinizing military details to ferret out information about the US's possible plans for an attack. Are the British pulling their troops out of southern Iraq ahead of schedule for fear of Iranian retaliatory attacks? How many aircraft carrier groups do the Americans currently have stationed in the Persian Gulf? Are 48 hours enough time to execute air-supported military strikes against Iran?

Against this background, Merkel's trip to the United States on Friday will be one of her most difficult missions to date. Now that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has stepped down, the German chancellor is one of the increasingly isolated president's few remaining close international allies. But does she have enough influence to prevent American military strikes against Iran?

Merkel recently made it clear, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, that she hopes for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear conflict with Tehran. "Together with its partners Germany will continue to seek a diplomatic solution," Merkel said. The consequences of an American military strike against Iran "would be devastating," she said, adding that she is also opposed to limited, "surgical" operations.

But how can Bush be stopped? The approach taken by Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder -- making his opposition to the Iraq invasion loud and clear -- was ultimately little more than a domestic political success. Besides, Schröder's political style is completely foreign to Merkel's nature.

In contrast to her dealings with the Chinese and the Russians, when it comes to America Merkel is the queen of the backroom deal. She prefers to operate behind the scenes, which is exactly where she would rather work out her conflict with Bush. There, she could quietly convince Bush that the military option would be disastrous while allowing the president to save face, and assure him that Germany is prepared to tighten sanctions against the mullahs and intensify diplomatic pressure on Tehran. In short, Merkel would have to make it clear to Bush that Germany would do what it takes to prevent a war.

That's likely the approach Merkel would take if she were left to her own devices. But the chancellor has her hands tied by domestic political considerations. The left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), who are in a power-sharing agreement with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats in the German government, finally see an opportunity to pressure the chancellor on foreign policy issues. In February 2006, the then leader of the Social Democrats, Matthias Platzeck, tried turning up the flame on the chancellor when he demanded that the military option be taken "off the table" in the conflict with Iran. But at the time Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was still willing to jump to the chancellor's defense, saying: "We should not be dealing with questions now before they have even been raised."

Exports to Iran

Country 2006 in millions of dollars* Compared to 2002*
Germany 5,147 +185%
France 2,648 +139%
China 2,157 +143%
Japan 1,310 +66%
Britain 982 +47%
USA 109 +627%
Sources: IMF, Census * Fiscal year ending in March

The situation has changed fundamentally since then. Now Steinmeier has joined the ranks of those demanding clear language from the chancellor. "I assume that Ms. Merkel will make it clear to President Bush in Crawford that we are fully behind Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice's diplomatic strategy," he says. This puts Steinmeier in line with Kurt Beck, the current SPD chairman, who made it clear in an internal discussion a few weeks ago that "there can be no military option against Iran."


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