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Is Berlin bending toward Trump's stance on Iran?

September 24, 2019

Having blamed Iran for the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, Angela Merkel's government seems to be following in the footsteps of Donald Trump's White House. Yet conflicts of interest complicate the German position.

US President Donald Trump appears as a dark silhouette against the sky
Image: AFP/B. Smialowski

The German government is generally critical of US President Donald Trump's politics, especially when it comes to questions of war and peace in the Middle East. Last year, Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Germany, France and the UK, among others, had struggled to secure and wanted to maintain at all costs.

The situation appeared to escalate dangerously after the drone attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on September 14. Iran-aligned Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen have claimed responsibility.

Smoke billows from fires after a drone attack on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilities
Smoke billowed from fires after a drone attack on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilitiesImage: Reuters

The US immediately blamed Iran, even as the Saudi government initially held back from definitively attributing responsibility. Riyadh now shares Washington's view. Iran, for its part, has denied any responsibility.

Now, 10 days after the attack, Germany, France and the United Kingdom have joined Washington in laying the blame on Iran.

"It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation," read a joint statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday. No details outlining the basis of blame were provided.

German opposition politicians were divided over the government openly blaming Iran. Whereas Bijan Djir-Sarai, foreign policy expert for the business friendly Free Democrats (FDP), told DW that Iran had was "clearly responsible" for the drone attacks, his Green party counterpart, Omid Nouripour, described the statement as a mistake and pointed to ongoing investigations into the source of the attacks. 

It is "negligent to pass premature judgment. This undermines the credibility of the investigations and will not lead to de-escalation," Nouripour told DW.

Tehran has rejected the European leaders' statement, describing their allegations as just as "ridiculous" and unfounded as those of the US. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, said anyone who attacked his country would face defeat, and added that his country had no animosity toward Saudi Arabia, Iranian news agencies reported.

Will German military face a call to action?

The three European governments did not stop at blaming Iran; in the statement they also reaffirmed "in this context our full solidarity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its population."

Riyadh immediately took the trio's statement forward. Saudi news agency SPA said the country's cabinet had called on the international community to keep Iran's aggressive behavior in check.  

Read more: Saudi oil strike: Iran pursuing 'strategy of escalation'

According to Jana Puglierin from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), Riyadh's response shows the dangerous position that Germany has gotten itself into with its expression of support.

"The future implications that this could have are totally unknown," Puglierin told DW. As an example, she cited the possibility that the US could put more pressure on Germany and other allies to engage militarily.

Germany's new defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, would be the first person to hear such a request. During her first visit in the role to the US, she signaled Germany's willingness to intervene militarily in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway on Iran's south coast that has been the site of attacks on oil tankers.

However, Kramp-Karrenbauer said the Bundeswehr would not join an American-led mission under Trump's hard-line campaign of "maximum pressure." Instead, German armed forces would join "a European mission." After meeting her US counterpart, Mark Esper, the German defense minister said the US also wanted to avoid giving the opposing side an excuse to escalate the tone.

Conflicting German interests

Even if Washington does not pressure Berlin to take part in military action, Puglierin believes Germany is in a difficult position.

"The country has interests in the region that are incompatible. When it comes to relations with Iran, Germany has said its top priority is maintaining the nuclear deal. On the other hand, it's supported by Saudi Arabia, a classic partner, who Germany in turn wants to support in order to counterbalance Iran," she said.

Hassan Rohani sits in front of an Iranian flag
Iran's president has not taken Trump up on the offer to meet directlyImage: pictur-alliance/dpa/Office of the Iranian Presidency

However, opposition politician Djir-Sarai would like to see Germany rethink the Iran nuclear deal as whole. "The deal as we know it is not enough. We need an additional deal and for this, the European Union must speak clearly first and foremost about Iran's missile program, but also about Iran's role in the region."

According to Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany sees its task as preserving diplomatic contact with Iran. However, such contact could also take place directly between the US and Iran at the highest level.

Despite tension between the rivals, Trump has said he does not want to rule out a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, though such a meeting is not planned.

Trump turned down a mediator initiative offered by French President Emmanuel Macron, saying he didn't need a go-between. If Iran wants to talk, "they know who to call," Trump said on Monday.

Regardless of Trump's view, Puglierin sees Germany's primary role as a mediator between Iran and the US.

"Germany and the EU nations are in a very good position. Unlike the US, they aren't following this strategy of massive pressure, but are instead presenting themselves credibly as a middleman that can counterbalance the situation," she said.

The Green's Nouripour pointed out that there is mistrust on both the US and Iranian, which makes the goal quite straight-foward. "It's simply about having at least a red telephone [between the countries] so that it doesn't accidentally come to a large military escalation. This lack of communication makes for a potentially explosive situation."

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