After the attack on Israel, German foreign policy towards Iran must change. What options are there?

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Alliance 90/The Greens) is very serious.

Annalena Baerbock in Italy this week at the G7 foreign ministers meeting, which also discussed tougher sanctions against Iran. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa

In the summer of 2015, Lower Saxony's Economy Minister Olaf Lies (SPD) could not act quickly enough. On July 14, 2015, when the five U.N. veto-wielding powers and Germany agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran, Lies promoted a trip to Tehran. One announcement speaks of a “business delegation of 70 people” and the “opportunity to revive historically good German economic relations.”

Because the comprehensive UN embargo fell with the nuclear deal, German companies and politicians felt there was big business. “Of course,” Lies’ announcement says, “this visit will also be about human rights.”

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A little bit of human rights and a lot of trade: for decades, German foreign policy was animated by this spirit, under the motto “Change through rapprochement” or “Change through trade.” A concept of the SPD. It was a common practice towards Russia, but also towards Iran.

An example of this is the Lower Saxony business delegation, which Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) promoted as Foreign Minister. When Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) was one of the first to travel to Tehran in 2015, he responded to criticism that he had followed the motto “contacts instead of conflicts.”

Naive about the threat?

That was all nine years ago. It was before Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, before the feminist revolt in Iran, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before October 7, 2023 and the Gaza War. And before the Iranian attack on Israel with rockets, cruise missiles and drones on April 14 of this year, which followed a bombing of a consular building in Damascus in which Israel is also believed to have killed two top Iranian generals of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard. .

On Friday, Israel's alleged counterattack took place. In any case, the Iranian attack last weekend was the first directly on Israeli territory in which the mullahs' regime did not use the terrorist organizations Hezbollah or Hamas as proxies. Inflection point. Does this mean a turning point towards the Iranian regime, a rethinking like the one that has already taken place towards Russia?

If you ask among exiled Iranians and critics of the regime, many do not believe in it. Taz activist and author Daniela Sepehri, for example, criticizes the “lack of strategy” towards the Islamic Republic. They were naïve to the threat, inconsistent, and continued to rely on a policy of “appeasement.” Germany remains Iran's most important trading partner within the EU.

However, Sepehri recognizes progress, such as the UN fact-finding mission. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) called for an independent investigation into human rights violations in Iran at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2022, two months after the start of the feminist uprising in Iran. In March 2024, experts stated in a report that the violent repression of protests had led to murder, torture and rape: “crimes against humanity.” The UN mission was extended for another year in early April.

Topic: Revolutionary Guards on the EU terrorist list

New packages of EU sanctions against Iranian companies and representatives of the regime have followed since September 2022. Baerbock openly expressed criticism and was met with hostility from Tehran for it.

On Thursday, on the sidelines of a meeting of G7 foreign ministers, he said: “Iran must be isolated. And at the same time, there should be no further escalation.” New sanctions were negotiated at the meeting and the EU also announced new measures regarding the production of drones and missiles. The inclusion of the Revolutionary Guard on the EU terrorist list was also discussed again.

The Revolutionary Guard, founded after the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a counterweight to the regular army, is heavily involved in the Iranian economy. Its special forces, the Quds Force, orchestrate Iran's global terrorist network.

In early 2023, Baerbock stated that he wanted to include her on the EU terrorist list. That hasn't happened yet. The German Foreign Minister regularly receives criticism for this. For months, his Ministry referred, among other things, to a confidential legal opinion of the Legal Service of the European Council, according to which there was no legal basis for this.

The investigation carried out by the taz showed that this is not clear in the report itself. It was said again and again that inclusion on the terrorist list had to be legally certain and did not go beyond the sanctions that exist for the Revolutionary Guards in relation to weapons of mass destruction. The political price of law enforcement in the EU is high; there is a risk of retaliation from Iran and the termination of all communication channels. So “contacts instead of conflicts”?

Red lines towards the regime

Baerbock said in an interview with the Tagesthemen newspaper on Wednesday that the EU had been asked again to examine the terrorist list. He referred to a recent ruling by the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf against a German-Iranian for a planned attack on a synagogue. The judges determined that the planning of the attack was carried out by “an Iranian state agency.” The taz, among others, had reported that investigators suspected the Revolutionary Guards were behind it. However, these were not explicitly mentioned in the reasons for sentencing, so it is unlikely that this could be used for a list.

Ulrike Becker, historian and head of research at the Mideast Freedom Forum in Berlin, criticizes the fact that Germany has not adopted a more consistent attitude towards Iran for a long time. It was not only the Revolutionary Guards who threatened Jews and members of the Iranian opposition in Germany. She also refers to the Islamic Center Hamburg. In November 2022, the Bundestag decided to examine its closure. He is considered the regime's ideological bridgehead in Europe, partly with close ties to Hezbollah. The Federal Ministry of the Interior is investigating and searches were carried out in November. The center is still not closed today.

“There needs to be clear red lines towards the regime,” says Becker. The room for action must be limited at all levels: domestic policy, foreign policy, sanctions and diplomacy. Germany has resisted harsh sanctions for years.

Change through trade? “That's a joke,” she says. The human rights situation in Iran has not improved. That must finally change now, through a tough approach, because while the federal government's goal is to avoid escalation and a major war, the current course is leading to exactly that. It encourages the regime to attack Israel.

Expansion of sanctions

But diplomacy has not come to an end, as the years since 2012 have shown: tough sanctions against Iran, driven primarily by US President Obama, brought Iran to the negotiating table, ultimately leading to the nuclear deal. . However, Becker considers the goal of collaborating with the regime a mistake. “It is now important that the federal government clearly stands on the side of the people of Iran and openly politically supports regime change,” Becker demands.

However, not everyone in political Berlin believes that a tougher approach is the right way to go. Azadeh Zamirirad, a researcher at the Science and Policy Foundation, told the Mirrorthat, in his opinion, sanctions would not deter Iran from further attacks against Israel.

Instead of simply looking for ways to weaken the state, Iranian civil society should be strengthened. Zamirirad believes that the federal government should ensure de-escalation through diplomatic channels and influence Iran along with other EU partners through China and the Arab Gulf States.

Bauke Baumann, Middle East consultant at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, also doubts a massive expansion of sanctions. There is a danger that the population will once again support the regime. “German foreign policy should not make the mistake of aiming exclusively at maximum pressure and military deterrence while losing sight of the people,” she says.

The nuclear deal rollback mechanism

The attack on Israel showed that Iran needed to be more isolated in the region. “I think it is crucial to end the Gaza war. “That would facilitate the internal cooperation of neighboring states with Israel.” However, Germany alone is not in a position to exert enough pressure. Not without the United States.

But with Joe Biden the course has also changed there. Experts say that under him the U.S. oil embargo against Iran will not be applied consistently, likely because of concerns about the price of oil. But Iran is particularly vulnerable when it comes to oil, explains economist Mahdi Ghodsi in Mirror. About 1.5 million barrels of oil are currently exported per day, mainly to China and India. According to Ghodsi, there are signs that Hungary, among other countries, is importing Iranian oil and gas. Starting oil exports would be a concrete option to increase pressure on Iran.

Another possibility would be the so-called nuclear deal rollback mechanism. Germany remains an official contractual partner today and could take advantage of this letter, at least until October 2025, as long as the agreement exists. The mechanism stipulates that if Iran violates the agreement, previous comprehensive UN sanctions will come into force again. Russia or China could not prevent them with a veto; Whether they would apply them would be another question.

Since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal, the Tehran regime has expanded uranium enrichment and restricted controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a clear violation of the agreement. According to the IAEA, Iran currently has about 120 kilograms of 60 percent uranium. According to experts, 90 percent of the material would be needed for an atomic bomb, and getting there would be a matter of weeks rather than months. It would probably take a little longer to produce a pump with a carrier system and release mechanism. A window of time that must be taken advantage of.

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