It was a vivid verbal tug-of-war on Germany’s political stage when former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) decided to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran last week. Federal MPs of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Green Party (Grüne) criticized Schroder’s travel plans and tried to urge him to cancel his meeting with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. But Schroder was not affected by the criticism and went to Teheran with important and warning messages for the Iranian administration. It was an old friend’s visit who spoke serious words. German-Iranian relations have been entering a period of ambivalent emotions.
“He should better make active politics for the deeply weakened Social Democrats than to support Ahmadinedjad passively” Iranian-originated MP Omid Nouripour of the Green Party said when Schroder’s political office announced the travel intentions of the former chancellor. The Federal Foreign Ministry did not want to make a statement on Schroder’s plans pointing at the fact that the travel was a private issue. Also the Central Committee of Jews in Germany expressed deep disappointment. “Mr. Schroder is harming the Federal Government’s public image”, the Secretary General Stephan Kramer said.
CDU`s foreign policy expert Eckart von Klaeden warned Schroder of flattering Ahmedinejad and decreasing Germany’s seriousness towards Iran in highly-important political matters like the nuclear programme. Members of the UN Security Council and Germany met in mid-February to hold talks on further sanctions against Iran. Due to important economic ties with Iran Germany has been reluctant to “hard” sanctions in the past. German diplomats pushed the Bush Administration to “soft” steps when US negotiators asked for immediate actions and a tightening up of sanctions in 2007. But now, the hesitant route of Germany’s Iran policy seems to have changed as the so-called EU3 (Germany, France and UK) proposed a tough list of additional sanctions to be imposed against Iran in order to give the Obama Administration more muscle in its expected engagement in the Islamic Republic.
German-Iranian relations have long-lasting and deep roots. The first German legation visited the Persian Empire in the 16th century. Then, in 1602, both emperors, Rudolf II and Shah Abbas the Magnificent, established diplomatic relations. While the Qadjar Empire had become the plaything of British-Russian rivalries, Persia and Prussia signed a Trade and Partnership Act in 1857. So, the German prestige in Persia was more of economic nature and was never marked by political and colonial interests.
After World War II, diplomatic relations revived with the re-opening of embassies on both sides in 1952. Supported by the development funds of Shah Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), thousands of students attended German universities in the 1960s and 1970s in order to transfer German technological knowledge to Persia. But numerous Germans and Persian exiled politicians, students, and intellectuals sentenced the autocratic regime of the Shah and the tortures and assassinations committed by the feared intelligence service SAVAK. Pahlavi’s visit to Germany in 1967 caused a wave of anti-Shah demonstrations and violent clashes between demonstrators and Shah-supporters.
The Islamic Revolution in 1979 censured the mutual ties for a short while, but never interrupted the export of German technology, machines, and other industrial goods to Iran. The basis of the current Iranian nuclear programme that started in 1985 was laid with the help of German and French technology during the Shah period and the post-Revolution period. According to official Iranian sources, “relations between both countries continued after the Islamic Revolution… although they were influenced by the general standings between Iran and Western countries, Germany had always had a special status among European states…. Despite ups and downs in mutual relations only France and Germany supported dialogue with Iran.”
During the era of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) relations became tense as Iranian officials were accused of being involved in the assassination of Iranian Kurdish opposition activists in 1992. That was the so-called Mykonos Trial. German businessman Helmut Hofer was arrested in Iran in 1997 and sentenced to death by a Teheran court as punishment for having sexual relation with a Muslim woman. On the other hand Hans-Dietrich Genscher was the first European foreign minister who visited Iran after the Revolution in 1984.
With a closer look at the seven years of Schroder’s chancellorship (Social-Green coalition, 1998-2005) a positive development of German-Iranian relations can clearly be fixed. At its beginning Schroder’s Berlin-Teheran-Line was burdened with the arrest of an Iranian spy in 1999 who was accused of agent activities against regime-critical opposition groups in Germany. An Iranian translator of the German Embassy in Teheran and employees of the Heinrich-Böll Foundation were accused of opposition activities harming the national security of Iran and were sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 2000. But relations relaxed when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) visited Germany in the same year. As a result of Khatami’s official visit Chancellor Schroder promised to expand economic and cultural cooperation and to increase the volume of Hermes-Export Funds for Iran from 200 million to one billion Deutsch Marks.
In 2001 Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (Green Party) met with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrasi focusing the negotiations on human rights in Iran. Fischer described the gathering as a “good dialogue with a wide field of common points.” Also the Speaker of the Federal Parliament Wolfgang Thierse (SPD) welcomed positive developments in mutual relations when he held a speech at the Tehran-based “Centre for Dialogue between Cultures” in 2001. Invited by the Iranian administration Fischer went to Teheran in 2003 together with his British counterpart Jack Straw and French Foreign Minister Domenique de Villepin. A Mullah regime with nuclear weapons that could change the strategic structures in the Middle East has always been a nightmare for him. After Fischer’s office term ended in 2005 he warned against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and stated that nuclear weapons would cause a chain reaction in the region. Blaming the Bush Administration for its failed Iraq policy, the Green Party politicians emphasized the serious regional hegemony of Iran. At the end of Schroder’s chancellorship economic relations between Germany and Iran had reached a volume of 4.9 billion Euros. Schroder never visited Iran as a statesman in office.
Schroder`s recent hop over to Iran did not contain the amicable words Tehran might have expected. In a speech at the Iranian Chamber of Commerce the German guest criticized President Ahmadinejad and made clear that the Holocaust is a historical fact that cannot be denied. Besides, Schroder called on the Iranian government to take the opportunity and to start a dialogue with the Obama administration after 30 years of deadlock relations. Schroder underlined the importance of Iran in solving problems in Afghanistan and Iraq. The closed-door summit with Ahmadinedjad remained uncommented by both sides and observers described the atmosphere as stressed and cool. Schroder also met former President Khatami, but in a relaxed and friendly mood. “We are good and old friends. Both countries had outstanding relations when we were in office,” Khatami said.
As Wall Street Journal columnist Matthias Künzel has analyzed correctly: Germany’s Iran policy is very ambivalent and at the crossroads under the current Social-Christian Grand Coalition of Angela Merkel. The Federal Foreign Ministry sets the Iranian nuclear issue on the top of its global agenda, but the public information flow and influence is very little. While policy consultants of Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) preach accommodation and even a strategic partnership with Iran, Chancellor Merkel calls for tougher sanctions if necessary to stop an Iranian bomb. Tehran’s quest for more nuclear power is perhaps the only international security issue where German foreign policy has real global relevance. When Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahdi Safari came to Berlin in April 2008 to hold negotiations with high-ranked officials, the German media did not report anything, but Iranian media said that both sides made efforts to find ways to expand economic cooperation. So, Schröder’s journey helped both partners of the Grand Coalition to express their targets: the Social Democrats shaped new visions for a closer partnership of old friends and the Christian Democrats warned Iran of too far-reaching nuclear ambitions – just following the political path of Israel and the U.S.