Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, Greens party co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, and Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner walk after a final round of coalition talks to form a new government, in Berlin, Germany, November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Why the new German coalition pact doesn’t bode well for Iran

Anyone hoping for a more creative policy that recognizes all bad actors in current Middle East crises will be disappointed.

If proponents of engagement with Iran in the United States hoped that European allies would push the Biden administration towards bolder steps in that direction, they are likely to be disappointed. 

On November 24, three political parties in Germany — the winners of the recent parliamentary elections from the Social Democratic party, the Greens, and the center-right Free Democrat Party (liberals, in the European sense of the word) — wrapped up their coalition talks with an agreed government program.  

Coalition agreements in Germany are serious business — they tend to be elaborated documents reflecting clear and detailed commitments rather than vague declarations of intentions. The new 177-page text devotes a substantial part to foreign policy, and within it, few lines dedicated to Iran. Those, however, are discouraging to those who envisaged a more creative German, and by extension, European policy towards that country and the Middle East in general.

The coalition agreement duly calls for a restoration of the nuclear agreement, or JCPOA, of which Germany is one of the seven negotiating parties. Yet it puts the onus squarely on Iran by stressing Tehran’s obligations to fully facilitate the inspection work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, despite the fact that it was the United States that withdrew from the agreement under Trump’s presidency in 2018 and then levied new sanctions designed to bring Tehran to its knee. Even then, Iran scrupulously complied with JCPOA’s terms for 18 months in the vain hope that the three European signatories, Germany included, would protect it from Washington’s unilateral sanctions and provide at least some of the economic relief that was promised under the original accord.

Germany, however, alongside Britain and France, the other two European signatories, failed to back up its necessary, but insufficient political statements in favor of the JCPOA with tangible action that would have helped the cause of Iran’s defenders of engagement with the West. That failure was a major factor tipping the scales in Tehran in favor of the hardliners, thus helping to pave the way for the conservative Ebrahim Raisi’s election to the presidency, and with it, mounting challenges to the JCPOA’s revival.

Reluctance to call out Washington’s role in the JCPOA crisis may be designed to win points with the Biden administration which is perceived in Europe as a welcome antidote to its predecessor. In addition, the two junior coalition partners in Germany – the Greens and the FDP – ran on a strongly Atlanticist platform, and that has clearly left its imprimatur on the incoming government’s coalition agreement. However, as long as the JCPOA is not revived, the real impact of Biden’s policies on Iran have not been so different from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. For the sake of its own credibility, the new leadership in Berlin should have called on Washington to lift the economic sanctions imposed by Trump as an indispensable condition for salvaging the deal, just as it rightly called on Iran to return to compliance with the JCPOA

Instead, the coalition agreement criticizes Iran for a litany of wrongdoings: aggressive regional policies, threats against Israel, violations of human rights and support for terrorist activities.

Some of these criticisms are valid: threats against Israel’s existence are not only unacceptable, but also fail to advance Iran’s national interest in any way. As long as Tehran refuses to eschew this kind of rhetoric, it won’t be able to fully normalize its relations not only with the U.S., but also with Germany and other European nations. And the human rights situation in Iran is indeed dire. 

What, however, diminishes the credibility of this document is the failure to call out other actors in the Middle East with equally problematic track records on regional policies and human rights. Instead, the document commits to working with unspecified “German partners in the Gulf” with the aim of promoting “confidence-building measures.” While that is a commendable goal, contrasting Iran’s uniformly negative depiction with a commitment to Germany’s unspecified Gulf “partners” sounds more like a policy of containing Iran than any real interest in promoting ongoing regional de-escalation efforts

Nowhere is this one-sidedness more evident than in a brief reference to Yemen. While the new German coalition commits to work to end the “humanitarian catastrophe” there, it fails to mention that that catastrophe is entirely manmade, not a result of some natural disaster. In fact, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen established that the majority of human casualties and war crimes in Yemen, notably through indiscriminate airstrikes by the coalition led Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, a conclusion suggesting that their regional role has been at least as destabilizing and aggressive as Iran’s. Nor does the incoming government’s agreement make any reference to internal repression in either the kingdom or the UAE, not to mention Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Azerbaijan and other West-friendly autocracies. The whole section on the Middle East leaves the impression that Germany is embracing the hawkish, and hitherto distinctly un-European view of Iran as the singularly bad actor in the region. 

It remains to be seen, of course, whether and how these views will be translated into actual policy. Not unlike Biden in the U.S., the SPD and its leader Olaf Scholz, who is set to become Germany’s next chancellor, strongly prioritized their socially-oriented domestic agenda. That left more space to the Greens to shape the foreign policy part of the coalition agreement. The party and its leader Annalena Baerbock, who is slated to become the next foreign minister, espoused a rather Manichean view of international politics as a global struggle between democracies and autocracies, even sounding at times much like some American neoconservatives. The SPD, by contrast, has stressed diplomacy and negotiation with adversaries over ideological crusades since the times of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Like Biden,  Scholz might soon discover that averting foreign policy crises— and a final demise of the JCPOA would almost surely provoke one — requires strong leadership and personal intervention. Delegating the issue — which could easily become one of war or peace — won’t cut it.

It is also true that Berlin’s point of departure in its relations with Iran is not the same as Washington’s. Diplomatic relations will continue, even if German criticisms of different aspects of Iran’s policies become more vocal. In the end, there might be more continuity in Germany’s approach to Iran than the coalition document suggests.

Continuity, however, is a low bar for Germany. In the Middle East generally, and on Iran specifically, Berlin has failed so far to match its economic weight with more creative and bold diplomatic engagement. The new German government’s foreign policy, naturally, deserves to be assessed on its future actions rather than words. The coalition agreement, however, is an underwhelming start in that regard. 

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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