BERLIN (JTA) — After months of criticism that her government lagged behind other European nations in isolating Iran, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is signaling that she’s ready for tougher measures against the Islamic Republic — that is, if diplomacy fails.
Some critics say it’s still too little, too late, while others point to the past few months as a sign that Germany finally is coming around.
“In recent months, Germany has stepped up its efforts,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA. “Sure there’s more to be done, given the dimension of the German-Iranian relationship, but things are pointed in the right direction.”
Merkel issued strong declarations on Iran to Jewish leaders here Nov. 6, to U.S. President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, over the weekend and alongside French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy after a meeting this week in Berlin.
But Germany’s position as Iran’s biggest trade partner in Europe and Merkel’s insistence on pursuing a diplomatic solution prior to pushing for tougher sanctions have some Israeli officials, American Jews and U.S. neoconservatives homing in on Germany for not doing enough to thwart Iran’s nuclear aims.
Germany’s “behavior has improved a lot, but we are talking about going from bad to not very good,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
There is a “broad consensus not just in Washington but in London and Paris that the Germans have been decidedly unhelpful,” she said. “At the end of the day, dealing with Iran is going to take more than good talk. It’s going to take pretty serious efforts to isolate them.”
Two significant obstacles stand in the way of Germany taking a harder line: One is the deep-seated pacifism that has guided postwar foreign policy here. No German politician can be seen supporting a preemptive military strike.
The other obstacle is the pocketbook.
Some 1,700 Germany companies still do business in Iran, and most Iranian small and mid-sized companies run on German technology, according to the Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public news agency.
“The economic and financial pressure on Iran must be painful and effective,” Aaron Sagui, the Israeli Embassy spokesman in Berlin, argues. “Otherwise we might miss the opportunity of resolving this issue politically.”
Over the past year, Germany has moved to tighten the economic screws on Iran, enforcing existing U.N. sanctions and adding to E.U. sanctions.
Bilateral trade between Iran and Germany has dropped steadily over the past two years, and German exports to Iran through July were 18 percent lower than in 2006. This month, the German engineering giant Siemens announced it would withdraw from all new business deals with Iran, reportedly following pressure by the U.S. and German governments.
Loan guarantees to German companies doing business in Iran through Hermes export credit insurance have dropped by a third compared to 2006, and the loan guarantees have become harder to obtain and more expensive.
Top German commercial banks, including Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and Dresdner Bank, stopped backing business with Iran last summer, following the lead of French banks that had done the same about six months earlier.
But critics say Germany still lags behind Britain and France, both of which have indicated — to varying degrees — that the use of force should not be ruled out.
Part of the reason for Germany’s lag, observers say, is that Merkel’s relative conservatism has been counterbalanced by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party. These observers say Steinmeier shares the anti-American stance of Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.
“I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that you have an extraordinarily left-wing Foreign Ministry that still views itself in definition as being against the U.S. rather than in defense of its own national security,” Pletka said.
Recently, however, Steinmeier appeared to move closer to Merkel’s position.
During a visit to Israel earlier this month, Steinmeier assured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Germany — Israel’s strongest supporter outside the United States — would support tougher sanctions.
Merkel sounded the same message in her recent meetings with Jews.
“I am aware that given the particular threat to Israel of an Iranian nuclear program, these words must not be empty words,” Merkel told German Jewish leaders when accepting the community’s Leo Baeck Prize last week. “They have to be followed by deeds, and my government is following its words with deeds.”
Germany is not the only European country whose actions have lagged behind tough talk, observers note.
According to the London-based Realite-E.U., which compiles backgrounder papers on Islamic extremism and Iran, French gas companies are still negotiating deals with Iran worth hundreds of billions of euros, and trade between Britain and Iran has grown over the past few years.
As for Germany, a spokesman for Realite-E.U. said Merkel is hiding behind pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions she knows will not succeed because U.N. Security Council members China and Russia oppose them.
Others see Germany’s approach as pragmatic.
Jackson Janes, executive director of the Washington-based American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, says Germany doesn’t make a stronger push for sanctions because Merkel knows they amount to little more than posturing so long as Iran can turn to other trading partners.
“Without a fully shared set of sanctions that really are enforced, then sanctions don’t mean anything because you can do business in Dubai or the [United Arab] Emirates,” Janes said. “They are claiming that American companies are doing that themselves.”
With uneven sanctions, European leaders “fear they will lose out to the Russians and the Chinese, and to the rising Indian oil market,” said Simon Barrett, director of International Media Intelligence Analysis.
Many Germans suspect that what the Bush administration really wants is regime change in Iran, not more sanctions.
With polls here showing Germans find the United States more troubling than Iran, the German people may be more interested in seeing regime change in another place: Washington.