The U.S. under Donald Trump is exacerbating tensions with Iran, leading many to fear war may be just around the corner. Any military conflict would have dire consequences for Europe, but the Americans remain undeterred. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
When German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas entered the meeting room of the center-left Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) parliamentary group in the German parliament building in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon, he was met with expectant eyes. The news had just emerged that Maas had received a call from United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A sparsely worded press release from the German Foreign Ministey noted that the secretary of state had expressed his “regret” that he needed to cancel his trip to Berlin at the last minute.
Foreign policy is a symbolic business. Who visits whom when, who makes whom wait for how long — this all has significance in diplomacy. Even if the German government went to great effort not to seem irritated, Pompeo’s cancellation is yet a further sign of just how fragile the relationship between Berlin and Washington is at the moment.
Other SPD lawmakers would also have liked to find out more about the background behind the cancellation, given that it came at a delicate moment. The news out of the Middle East this week has been alarming. An American aircraft carrier was on its way to the Persian Gulf, and every indication suggested that Pompeo’s aircraft was also heading somewhere in the crisis region.
But Foreign Minister Maas said nothing. Instead, he left the meeting after half an hour. To the SPD lawmakers, the minister’s silence seemed like a symbol of the helplessness and the lack of direction in German foreign policy.
There was, after all, plenty for him to explain. The U.S. secretary of state was on his way to Baghdad with the goal of bringing the Iraqi regime on board with the Washington’s strategy against Iran. The Americans are currently escalating the conflict with Tehran — with unpredictable consequences for their allies in Europe. In Berlin political circles, worries are growing about the potential threat of war.
Experienced diplomats are reminded of the period in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. And sources within the German government believe the threat of war is greater than it has been at any point in recent decades.
“We’re seeing increasing confrontation everywhere in the region,” said Volker Perthes, the head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He believes there’s “a dangerous concurrence of conflicts and too many actors who are willing to take risks and are not speaking with each other.”
A Powder Keg
Jürgen Tritten, a veteran member of the German parliament with the Green Party who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he sees a “huge danger of escalation” in the region. “The U.S. appears to be looking for a pretext to escalate the conflict with Iran,” he argued. “The claim that Iran is planning an attack against U.S. troops in Iraq smacks of a Tonkin incident,” he added, referring to a minor confrontation that became the pretext under which the U.S. intensified its role in the Vietnam War.
Washington is trying to bring Iran to its knees using a mixture of economic warfare and military threats. And whether or not the U.S. is pursuing a goal of regime change seems almost beside the point. Because anyone who puts a fuse into a powder keg and says, “Let’s just see what happens,” is already risking a war.
The U.S. has already slapped tough sanctions on the regime in Tehran, and it is demonstratively ramping up militarily in the Persian Gulf. After intelligence services warned of potential Iranian attacks against U.S. soldiers, Trump deployed a battle group led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as well as a bomber squadron toward Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.
In response, Iranian revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, has reportedly placed the Iranian forces on higher alert. In a speech on May 1, he described Washington’s actions as “total war.” At no point since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 has the threat of war been greater.
The U.S.’ actions are doubly dangerous. The tensions with Iran could, intentionally or not, expand into a military conflict. And it wouldn’t be any less dangerous if the hawks in Washington succeeded in destabilizing Iran and the country fell into civil war. Iran has over 80 million inhabitants, a population about four times the size of Syria’s before the civil war.
It’s little surprise, then, that Trump’s confrontational Middle Eastern policy has exacerbated the tensions between the U.S. and its European allies, because, unlike the situation in Venezuela, Europe would be directly affected. The continent’s very security is at stake.
The consequences of a war would primarily affect Europe. Sources within the German government claim that the Americans have been told repeatedly that their policies pose a much greater danger to Europe than the U.S. But those efforts have been in vain.
Europeans Blame the U.S.
The Americans believe the Europeans, especially the Germans, have been an impediment to their strategy of maximum pressure. Trump’s government doesn’t see Merkel’s government as an ally, but rather as an obstructionist that too often insists on dialogue in the Middle East, has too close a relationship to Tehran and undermines the sanctions and torpedoes Washington’s policies against Iran.
A war in the Middle East may not be on Trump’s agenda. During his campaign, he promised that under his leadership, the U.S. would end the “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos” and thus stop “racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved in.” But the president and John Bolton, his national security adviser, both agree that the threats against Iran should intensified.
Meanwhile, the Europeans blame Washington for the escalation in the Middle East. “Washington is exacerbating regional tensions with its policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran,” said Niels Annen, a high-ranking official at the German Foreign Ministry. “Trump’s Middle East policy is highly dangerous,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. “Trump is breaking international agreements with Iran. And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. president is effectively making a two-state solution impossible.”
Leaders in Berlin and Brussels believe that Iran is reacting with restraint to pressure and provocation from the U.S. One year after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed severe sanctions on the country, Tehran announced this week it would violate the treaty — in a very limited manner.
Iran’s announcement that it would no longer abide by the limit for the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water is, in the view of the German government, not immediately relevant, given that these limits won’t be reached until autumn at the earliest. The hope being that a political solution can be found by then.
“Iran’s announcement alone is not a violation of the agreement,” said Helga Schmid, the secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in Brussels, the EU’s diplomatic arm. “We will adhere to our commitments, as long as Iran does the same.”
In two weeks, a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to be released. The agency regularly monitors whether Iran is abiding by the agreement. In Brussels, leaders are expecting that the report, like the past 14, will be positive.
And this, despite the fact that U.S. sanctions are now hitting the Islamic Republic at their full impact. The country’s economic growth has collapsed. This year, its GDP is expected to shrink by 6 percent. Inflation is at nearly 40 percent, discontent within the population is growing and the humanitarian situation is worsening.
The complete oil embargo Pompeo announced in late April, which prohibits all countries from purchasing it from Iran, will, according to U.S. State Department estimates, cost Iran 50 billion dollars per year, or 40 percent of its annual government income. Although the Iranians are expecting that China will continue to buy a limited amount of oil, and that they will also be able to sell some petroleum on the “gray market” through Iraq and Turkey, estimates suggest that exports will fall from 2.5 million barrels per day to a maximum of 700,000.
Pact in Danger
Tehran is also disappointed in the European signatories to the nuclear agreement. After the U.S. pulled out of it one year ago, Germany, France and the United Kingdom assured the Iranians they would do everything in their power to save the agreement. Trade was to be a central instrument. In order to bypass U.S. sanctions and sidestep the American financial system, Germany, France and the U.K. would set up a special purpose vehicle called Instex to serve as a kind of trading platform that could be used to offset imports and exports to Iran against each other, keeping the money in the individual countries rather than relying on transfers.
In practice, however, not a single transaction has taken place. The establishment of the vehicle has been delayed. Instex’s managers are particularly concerned about how to ensure that the transactions don’t run afoul of U.S. sanctions.
With the help of the consulting company Ernst & Young, the Europeans are looking for experts who can review every Iranian company to exclude the risk of them having any connections to the Revolutionary Guard. Because if it turns out that the Europeans potentially conducted business with the Revolutionary Guard, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., it would be just what the Trump administration was waiting for.
Even if that possibility is successfully excluded, members of the German government doubt that Instex’s trade volume will be sufficient to decisively change the economic situation in Iran.
In the meantime, Iran has issued the Europeans an ultimatum of 60 days to offset the effects of the sanctions. If that doesn’t happen, Iran could restart enriching uranium or withdraw itself from the nuclear deal. Then it might not be too long before Tehran acquires the nuclear bomb — or the U.S. attacks militarily.
The confrontation with Tehran is only part of the heavy-handed policies the U.S. is imposing on the Middle East. Trump has split the region into two categories: allies and enemies. In the president’s head, there’s no room for gray areas. The U.S.’ allies include Israel and the Saudi royal family as well as the rest of the Gulf States. The biggest enemy is Iran.
The Americans are hoping to get Iran to the negotiating table with their harsh policies. They want Iran to abandon its nuclear program in the long term, limit its missile program and cease providing support to Shiite militias like Hezbollah.
But Iran also has allies across the region, with Iran-allied militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Tehran is blaming the growing tensions on three “B’s:” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton.
One American measure in particular has increased the danger of an accidental military escalation: On April 8, Washington declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. In retaliation, the parliament in Tehran passed a law declaring Centcom — the U.S. central command in charge of the Middle East — as a terrorist body. Now, at least in theory, American and Iranian troops, are obliged to take action against each other wherever they might encounter each other in the region.
Berlin is also on a collision course with Washington over the Middle East’s second major crisis zone. The Trump administration is set to present its plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in June. The plan is to wait until after Ramadan and the formation of a new Israeli government. After that, though, Trump wants to introduce to the world his “vision” for settling one of the century’s greatest conflicts, as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, one of the architects of the policy, recently announced.
No concrete action has been taken so far, but the fear is that the U.S. will move away from the idea of the two-state solution, which the international community has viewed as the only way forward for decades. “The vision that we’ll lay out is going to represent a significant change from the model that’s been used,” Secretary of State Pompeo told CNN in an interview last month.
Abandoning America’s Mediator Role
Words like those are the source of concern for the government in Berlin. Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas are ready to give the plan a careful read, and they are receptive to creative ideas for resolving the conflict. But if the American plan were to weaken the Palestinians’ right to self-determination as a nation or recognize territories occupied by Israel without regard to international law, Germany would not be able to back it.
Since taking office, Trump has abandoned America’s role as a mediator and has unilaterally taken the side of the Israeli government. He closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and eliminated U.S. funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA). He moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli control of the Golan Heights, which it annexed from Syria in 1981, in the middle of the Israeli parliamentary election campaign.
At the end of March, Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s former foreign-policy adviser and now Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demonstrated how the tone toward the U.S. might be ratcheted up. At a meeting of the UN Security Council, he accused the Americans of “violating international law.”
“We appeal for respect for international law, but not as a goal in and of itself,” said Heusgen. “We believe that international law is the best way to protect civilians and allow them to live in peace and security.”
Rolf Mützenich, the deputy parliamentary group leader for the SPD, remarked, “As with the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Americans have yet to explain to us what the better alternative to the two-state solution would be.” In Brussels, EU officials also want to preserve the two-state solution. “We don’t see a better solution for the Middle East conflict in the EU than the two-state solution,” said EEAS official Schmid.
‘We’re Sitting on a Rope’
Mützenich is calling on the German government to take the lead among the countries pushing for a UN Security Council resolution requiring strict compliance with international law in the Middle East. “The U.S. must then decide whether to veto a resolution like that,” said Mützenich.
Europe is basically watching helplessly as tempers flare between Washington and Tehran. “We are sitting on a rope, with the Americans pulling at one end and the Iranians at the other, and the rope is getting thinner and thinner,” said one EU diplomat.
German foreign policy is essentially limited to appeals to the Iranians. No one in Berlin believes that Germany’s allies in Washington can be persuaded to shift course. Germany at the moment considers the theocracy in Tehran to be more reasonable and rational than the country’s own allies in Washington.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Americans, either. But in Trump’s crude view of foreign policy, Germany plays the part of the bad guy anyway. Merkel has gained a reputation among the president’s close staffers as a nerve-wracking moralizer who gives tediously long lectures. Which takes us back to Pompeo. Baghdad was, as mentioned earlier in this article, more important to the secretary of state than Berlin. Pompeo, on the other hand, had no trouble attending two other appointments in Europe — Finland on Monday and the U.K. on Wednesday.
That says a lot about ties between Berlin and Washington in these days. More than a year after taking office, Pompeo still hasn’t paid a visit to Berlin.
Bolton also hasn’t seen any reason to visit Germany. And a good seven weeks have passed since Chancellor Merkel’s last phone call with Trump.
Germany currently has little to report to the White House. Instead, other Europeans are getting their chance. The same day that Pompeo cancelled his Berlin visit, the White House sent out an announcement about a high-ranking visit from Europe: Hungarian prime minister and right-wing populist Viktor Orbán is expected in Washington next week. Trump has said he wants to talk to Orbán about deepening American-Hungarian relations.
When the German chancellor travels to the U.S. next, at the end of May to give the commencement speech at Harvard University, Trump won’t have any time for her. He’ll be playing golf in Florida.
Pompeo apparently wants to reschedule his visit for next week, but officials in Berlin are still awaiting confirmation from Washington.
By Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Christoph Scheuermann, Fidelius Schmid and Christoph Schult