Europe has been in a frenzy since Donald J. Trump withdrew from the “worst deal in history.” European diplomacy has been in overdrive to support Iran and maintain the deal. Iran, unsurprisingly, is desperate for the deal’s survival and has been issuing a combination of threats and demands, including European guarantees.
These efforts have come to naught so far. Following intense negotiations between Iran and European countries, the EU’s foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, declined to promise “legal or economic guarantees” and stopped at “serious, determined, immediate work from the European side.” After a meeting with EU foreign ministers this week, she emphasised efforts “to protect the economic investments of European businesses that have legitimately invested and engaged in Iran.”
Other EU leaders have also supported the deal’s survival. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech on May 15th that “Britain, France and Germany were of the opinion that the agreement against Iran’s nuclear armament is an agreement that certainly has weaknesses, but an agreement we should stand by.” She has repeatedly acknowledged flaws in the deal but claimed that “with the agreement, we would have better preconditions to speak with Iran about further agreements than by unilaterally cancelling an agreement that was unanimously approved and endorsed in the U.N. Security Council.” German foreign minister Heiko Maas also claimed that “We don’t think there is any justifiable reason to pull out of this agreement and we continue to make the case for it to our American friends.”
Contrary to these claims, the nuclear deal does not ensure security for the region or stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The EU’s support for the deal’s continuation is understandable – as Mogherini’s statement above confirms, it is motivated by the need to protect investments and valuable trade with Iran.
However, it is less clear that Germany’s incentives are exactly congruent with the EU as a whole. To be sure, Germany and Iran have had a long history of trading with each other. Germany’s trade with Iran was worth $4.5 billion in 1975 and totalled about $6 billion in the late 1970s. It fell to about $2 billion in 2013 but recovered to be worth $3.5 billion in 2017 and is on an upward trajectory.
However, Germany’s trade with the US is vastly greater than these numbers. For instance, in 2017, Germany exported $117.7 billion worth of goods to the US and imported $53.4 billion worth from America. It has already exported $30.6 billion worth of goods to the US in the three months of 2018 compared with an import bill of $14.7 billion. Crucially, the trade balance in goods is massively in favour of Germany – to the tune of $64 billion in 2017 and $15.9 billion in the three months of 2018. In other words, the balance of trade with the US is worth over 18 times the total trade with Iran.
Germany’s advantage in the trade relationship has grown over time. In 2007, the trade in goods balance was $44.7 billion in favour of Germany compared to $64 billion in 2017 – a growth of about $20 billion in 10 years.
Clearly, it would be foolish for Germany to jeopardise this vastly profitable trade relationship because of the Iran nuclear deal. Aside from the financial interest, German emphasis on Iran does not square with the country’s publicly stated commitments to human rights.
The Iranian regime administers one of the most repressive forms of tyranny on its own citizens. The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir documented the following in a report in March 2017: “at least 530 executions … in 2016; Iran “executed the highest number of juvenile offenders” in the world over the last decade; the government had not accepted “any of the 20 recommendations regarding torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” made during the UPR in 2014; “numerous reports about the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” including amputations, blinding, flogging, torture to procure confessions, solitary confinement, denial of necessary medical help to persons in detention; “continuing systematic discrimination, harassment and targeting of adherents to the Baha’i faith”; “targeting and harsh treatment of Christians”; “indiscriminate and blind use of lethal force towards Kurdish kulbaran (back carriers)”; discrimination against women; attacks on the legal profession and judicial institutions, and severe curtailment of political freedoms.
The government claims that “amputations and floggings” are not torture but “effective deterrents to criminal activity.” Its actions outside Iran are no better – fostering violence in Syria, Yemen, and the Middle East, cyber-attacks against Western targets, etc. Why is Germany supporting such a regime and being hostile to the US?
German hostility to the US is owed to propaganda about American imperialism, sympathy for the underdog, and resentments especially amongst citizens dependent on the welfare state. A poll conducted by Pew Research with the Korber-Stiftung in October 2017 found that 56% of Germans believed that relations with the US were bad. This contrasted with only 22% of Americans who believed that their country’s relations with Germany were bad. A mere 11% of Germans thought Trump would do the right thing in international relations.
These attitudes are contrary to self-interest. Germans have much to gain from closer cooperation with the US. As a practical matter, German influence is most pronounced in the US than anywhere else in the world. Donald Trump’s grandfather was a German. According to some estimates, about one-in-six Americans have German ancestry.
At least two American presidents were of German descent – Eisenhower and Hoover. Other Germans have been icons in American life – Einstein, Steinbeck, Levi Strauss, Dr Seuss, Woody Allen, Marlene Dietrich, Boeing, Chrysler, Annheuser, Duesenberg, Heinz, Kroger, and Coors among hundreds of Germans who have become household names in the US.
Germany should persuade the EU to disengage from Iran and seek closer cooperation with the US. If the EU weighs up the scales between the US and Iran, it will see that continuing to flog a dead horse and trade with Iran’s repressive regime is not consistent with its values or self-interest. The US is a more natural ally especially due to the shared ethnic and cultural bonds. The US should also adopt a strategy to counter disinformation and propaganda in Germany and Europe more broadly. Contrary to the views of many EU citizens, it is not American imperialism that they have to fear – there are more proximate threats closer to home. German pragmatism can defuse heated rhetoric and show the EU that conflict with the US over Iran is contrary to the group’s self-interest.