An Iranian intelligence agency spied on German politician Reinhold Robbe for months. In an interview with DW, Robbe says he is convinced that the extent of Iranian espionage in Germany is greater than previously known.
DW: Mr. Robbe, you claim that Iran has spied on Germany more than almost any other country and that it invests heavily in its intelligence apparatus. Why would its intelligence agencies be interested in Germany?
Reinhold Robbe: Firstly, it is because Germany holds a key position in general as the strongest EU economy. But also because Germany maintains excellent relations in all parts of the world. Despite existing embargoes, German's historical situation has led to great relations with the entire Western world and the Arab world. You can see that with Israel. We didn't just today suddenly build a superb and unique relationship with Israel without damaging ties to the Arab world. This special situation does not only lead to the fact that Germany is a respected partner, but also a subject of interest to many different states, even the ones that are not necessarily friends of Germany. We are basically a global political hub, and this hub not only has its good side but also a negative side, because many intelligence agencies are active here. Most of them engage in industrial espionage, but there are states that have set tough political goals.
Why would someone like you be put under surveillance?
The obvious goal — as stated in the Federal Public Prosecutor's indictment and by the judge in his explanation for his decision — was to spy on me and then kidnap me or make an attempt on my life in an undefined situation. This can be concluded from the documents and the fact that my movements were tracked extensively. One possible scenario could be, for example, an escalation in the Middle East. Then, Germany would automatically side with Israel and massive military support would not be ruled out. And it could have been used for a situation like that.
And I have been targeted personally because I have maintained bilateral relations with Israel at various levels since my adolescence — in politics but also as a volunteer in the German-Israeli Society, in the German Coordinating Council for Christian-Jewish Cooperation and so on. I am, so to speak, one of Israel's longtime friends and have never made a secret of it.
Furthermore, I am very critical of the Iranian regime. We are looking at a dictatorship in Iran. It is not a constitutional state, nor is it a state that is run according to our fundamental attitudes, basic principles of humanism and human rights. The worst criminals are members of the regime there. One of them was recently in Hanover for medical treatment. And that is why experts, especially those who work for intelligence agencies and those who have been dealing with Iran for a long time, say that in the future, these things will not merely be theories but quite realistic scenarios.
But by engaging in espionage, wouldn't Iran risk losing Germany's support for the nuclear deal?
This may happen but we all know that there are different levels of decision making in Iran. The government does not have the last word but, instead, the ayatollahs at the top, who also have their own secret services. The agents who were spying on me were working for the Quds Force, which belongs to the Revolutionary Guards. And that is why many things are completely unpredictable.
Do you think other German politicians could be in danger?
I really can't tell. I don't want to dramatize the situation. I am rational, as is typical of people from northern Germany, and I only stick to the facts. But I did not suspect the potential goals when I was spied on. People always think that spy stories only happen in John Le Carre espionage novels. And then, suddenly, one is actually a target and sees that this is not as far removed from reality as one thinks. If you look at Germany rationally from the perspective of the regime in Tehran, there are certainly other people who would be of interest. They probably came up with me because intelligence agencies in Iran must have intercepted certain keywords in my phone or email activities. But in the end, you can only speculate about this for so long.
In your opinion, how great is the danger of intelligence activities for the Iranian opposition in Germany and Iranian activists?
We can only guess. The fact is that Iran, together with Russia, Turkey and China, is one of the states that engage in espionage in Germany the most. This is the reason why I am firmly convinced that Iranian oppositionists in Germany and other countries — for example in London, where there are many high-ranking figures — are being closely monitored and espionage agencies have all sorts of scenarios up their sleeves.
On Tuesday, the Federal Prosecutor's Office ordered raids on alleged Iranian agents. The apartments and offices of 10 suspects were searched. Why wasn't anyone arrested?
I can draw parallels between the investigations in that case and mine. In my case, computers belonging to the suspects were found and confiscated. No immediate evidence could be provided for one agent. He had to be released and then he disappeared immediately. But the other agent's device was turned on and different types of evidence were secured. And most importantly, many files deleted by the suspects had to be recovered. That can take weeks. And then, one has to see whether the authorities can actually evaluate the documents and whether the judge presiding over the case can issue an arrest warrant. I am certain that this is what happened in this case.
After the recent espionage cases in Germany, do you see a need for Berlin to change its Iran policy?
If you look at the economic situation in Iran and see the large protests in recent days that have to do with the fact that people do not have work and do not know how to feed their children, and when you see that Iran is experiencing economic hardship, including food shortages, then you can tell that the regime is facing major economic problems. On the other hand, we know from the past that economic pressure can make a difference; in other words, we talk to Iran and make demands at the same time. I am convinced that the whole nuclear deal would not have come about if Iran did not have major economic problems. And this means that the sanctions must be reviewed over and over again to determine whether they will suffice or whether the pressure on Iran must be increased.
With regard to Europe, there is a lack of reliable evaluation of the aid that is provided. You cannot merely hand over money to aid organizations in the belief that problems will be dealt with. No, we Europeans are also responsible for closely examining what happens to the money and what it is used for. Is there a guarantee that people will be provided with assistance? Or does money go down the wrong avenues, because we all know that corruption in Iran is terrible. And that is why I repeat: Economic pressure must be maintained. It is crucial for the improvement of Iran's domestic situation.
Reinhold Robbe is a German politician and member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Until 2015, he was president of the German-Israeli Society.