German-Iranian ties face scrutiny as hard-liner Raisi takes office | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 05.08.2021

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Middle East

German-Iranian ties face scrutiny as hard-liner Raisi takes office

Ebrahim Raisi once had government critics tortured and executed. Now, he is Iran's new president. His record raises many questions for German-Iranian relations.

Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's new president, has a dark past as head of the Iranian judiciary

Iran has a new head of government: Ebrahim Raisi. The 60-year-old cleric with the rimless glasses and what comes across as a shy smile was inaugurated as president on Tuesday, and takes the oath of office Thursday.

The ultraconservative lawyer is taking over the presidency at a crucial time. Indirect negotiations with the United States in Vienna on the future of the 2015 nuclear agreement are stagnating. And the recent drone attack on a tanker operated by an Israeli-owned company off the coast of Oman has once again highlighted the explosive nature of the Persian Gulf security challenge— both the US and the UK blame Iran for the attack.

If Iran's future under Raisi looks bleak, a look at the cleric's past is also darkly revealing, particularly for human rights activists. In the recent past, Raisi, as head of the judiciary, had numerous participants in the 2018 and 2019 protests executed.

He distinguished himself as an unscrupulous stooge of the regime even when he started his political career more than three decades ago. In 1988, he was involved in the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners, which is why Washington put Raisi on its sanctions list in 2019.

In view of Raisi's bloody past, German foreign policy experts have urged an about-face in relations with Iran. "If a judge with blood on his hands is president of the country, we must put the issue of human rights at the top of the agenda," Omid Nouripour, the foreign policy spokesman for the Green party, told DW. 

No more 'pussyfooting'

Human rights played a minor role at best during the presidency of Raisi's predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. Even when Iranian security forces brutally suppressed demonstrations against rising gasoline prices in 2019, the German government did not come out with a clear condemnation of the government in Tehran. "This pussyfooting must stop," Nouripour said. 

Crowd of protesters, many raising arms, in Khuzestan in July

Protests against the water shortage in Khuzestan province were brutally put down

"We need a new Iran strategy," Bijan Djir-Sarai, the foreign policy spokesman for the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), told DW — a strategy that in his opinion should not be influenced solely by the ongoing negotiations to save the nuclear agreement.

Since the beginning of this year, talks have been underway in Vienna to restart the nuclear deal signed in 2015 after years of negotiations between the US, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China on the one hand and Iran on the other. Under the original deal, Iran agreed to strict controls of its nuclear activities in exchange for economic aid.

In 2018, however, the United States under the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement, the JCPoA. A year later, Iran also began to renege on its commitments.

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The nuclear agreement has dominated German-Iranian relations for the past eight years, said Cornelius Adebahr, associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). But there are other problems, too, he told DW, including domestic politics, human rights and the regional issue. "Germany has taken little action on these issues," he said. 

Hassan Rouhani's outwardly moderate stance made it easier to look the other way on such matters. "It is now becoming more difficult for Germany and Europe to publicly defend the continuation of a policy of authoritarian stability," Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a German-Iranian political scientist, told DW.

Raisi's past is overshadowed by human rights violations in Iran — as have been the days and weeks leading up to his inauguration. In the southwestern province of Khuzestan, pro-government militias brutally crushed protests against the prevailing water shortage. Amnesty International has reported at least eight deaths.

Signs of a political turnaround

It appears that Germany's Iran policy is shifting, however. Last month, the Bundestag passed the first human rights resolution against Iran in 10 years.

Ebrahim Raisi and Hassan Rouhani in front of microphones, wearing face masks

Ebrahim Raisi (right) succeeds Hassan Rouhani as president

The joint motion by the conservative CDU/CSU, center-left SPD, FDP and Green parties urges making the human rights situation the focus of Germany's policy toward Tehran — and calls for this policy to be critically reviewed on a regular basis. Iran must continue to be called upon to comply with human rights treaties, the motion demands, adding that the German government should try to ensure that Iran also accedes to the UN conventions on women's rights and against torture.

Crises offer a chance for cooperation

Experts have said that making Iran's economic and environmental problems a stronger focus of German-Iranian relations is in Germany's own best interest. Iran suffers from high unemployment, extreme water shortages and medical emergencies. "If more and more people leave the country because it becomes uninhabitable, that also affects our interests," the DGAP's Adebahr warned.

"Germany could do a lot on the water issue, for instance, by giving environmental aid and economic assistance," he said, adding that scientific cooperation in that area could have a positive effect.

Regional policies

The Greens' foreign policy expert Nouripour pointed out the importance of also keeping in mind Iran's role in the surrounding region. "The system's human rights violations outside Iran, for example, in Syria, must also be addressed," he said.

Iran is active in the Syrian civil war, supports Shiite militias in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Hamas in Gaza, and is allied with rebels in Yemen. The country also has one of the largest ballistic missile programs in the region, with missiles that can even hit targets in Israel.

"If one sees how the Iranian government supports [militant group] Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, from where attacks are launched time and again — very recently with thousands of missiles — then it is absolutely clear that regional policy belongs at the top of the agenda," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, an FDP lawmaker, told DW.

Four men with face masks sitting at long table in front of several flags

A restart of the 2015 nuclear agreement is being negotiated

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, too, has spoken out in favor of including Iran's missile program in the negotiations on the nuclear agreement. But such a move has already been categorically rejected by Raisi.

Last chance for a breakthrough

The negotiations on the future of the nuclear deal will nonetheless be the first contact between Germany and Iran's new government under the ultraconservative president. Raisi has already made it clear that the talks will not be any easier with him in power. "I will not allow negotiations just for the sake of negotiating," he said in June.

Iran is aiming for the production of 20% enriched uranium, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which means the country is moving further and further away from the JCPoA agreements. In 2015, Iran was still an estimated one year away from producing a nuclear bomb, but now it is thought to be a matter of just months.

All the same, the agreement is important to Germany, Lambsdorff said, arguing that even if Iran has violated the agreement and wants to ramp up uranium enrichment to 20%, "it's worth trying to stop it from going all the way."

Fathollah-Nejad is convinced that Tehran intends to stick to the negotiations despite all the harsh rhetoric.

"There is bound to be more continuity between the two presidents. The government has little say in Iran when it comes to foreign policy. The supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — Editor's note], along with the Revolutionary Guards, is the one who sets the direction," the political analyst said.

This article has been translated from German