Playing With Fire

German foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear weapons program

18/01/2012 | by Joachim Krause

Category: Security, Arms Control and WMD, Iran, Western Asia, Near and Middle East/North Africa

Contrary to what many in Germany think, the United States does not seek to overthrow the regime in Iran. Instead, the US and its allies will seek tougher sanctions and limited military actions to further weaken the government in Teheran. German policy should get behind this international effort and realize that Iran is the problem, not the United States.

Dean Calma / IAEA, CC BY

The crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program has entered a new, decisive phase. The situation has been simmering for a long time, and few in Germany are aware of the drama. Only two things have interested the majority of politicians and the accompanying journalists and experts: how can the United States be prevented from pursuing violent regime change in Iran? And how can Iran be convinced to return to the “international community” (in other words, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) through diplomatic means? The first goal was essentially met when Barack Obama assumed the US presidency in January 2009, although as long as President Obama leaves the option of military intervention on the table, even he will be under suspicion of planning an invasion. The second goal has not yet been reached. There have been a number of interesting attempts at diplomatic solutions since 2003, but all of them have been blocked (usually due to disruptive action from Teheran). 

And now there is more unpleasant news: The storming of the British Embassy in Teheran and talks of preparations by the Israeli military as well as alarming reports of investigations by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office against Iranians who are alleged to have planned terror attacks against US Army facilities in Germany.

The storming of the British Embassy in Teheran has revealed that Iran’s leadership is increasingly willing to react aggressively because they are overwhelmed. The nuclear program—which no one outside of a few professional propagandists believes is intended for peaceful purposes—is risky business for the Iranians, and it is about to get more precarious. Sanctions are starting to take effect and will be tightened to a degree, which will lead to considerable drawbacks for Iran. One can already see that the sanctions have limited Iran from realizing its full potential for crude oil and natural gas exports. Oil production has sunk, and Iran is now a net importer of natural gas despite having the world’s second-highest natural gas reserves. Sanctions against the country’s nuclear program—such as cyber attacks (Stuxnet) and bomb attacks (against leading scientists involved in the nuclear and rocket programs)—have raised the price of the program enormously. But its output remains limited. Even if Iran makes progress on uranium enrichment, it would still be one or two years away from producing a nuclear weapon. Even then, any weapon produced would not be reliable.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has spoken about the need to observe international laws and has stated that Iran has a choice between isolation and cooperation. Chancellor Merkel has remained silent, the media continues to publish sensationalized reports, and the public is unsettled. The latest events have made clear: Germany’s current Iran policy has reached its limit.

Recent political and public debates in Germany have been determined by experts and politicians whose main concern is countering America’s alleged plans to bring about regime change in Iran. The claim is that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, Washington has built Iran up as its main enemy and overstated the threat from Teheran. The main argument against Washington’s claims is that the leadership in Teheran is not monolithic. In fact, many of Iran’s leaders are at odds with one another and are thus in no position to pose a serious strategic threat.

This assessment, which has been represented by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (a think tank that has close ties to the government) and has significantly shaped German government policy, overlooks two fundamental things:

1. Iran’s leadership is indeed quite weak and divided, but it is still in a position to seriously challenge the United States, Israel, and Arab neighbor states through a combination of its nuclear program, its rocket program, and many smaller military programs. This is perhaps the one factor that Iran’s divided leadership can agree on. But then the Revolutionary Guards (IRCG) have long controlled Iran. The group has developed a number of impressive asymmetric military programs that could do serious damage to the US Navy. With Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Mahdi Army militia in Iraq acting essentially as IRCG franchises abroad, assassinations and military operations can be ordered not only in Iran’s immediate neighborhood, but throughout the world. And Iranian rockets will soon be able to strike Central Europe. Why has Iran been able to stringently build up its military capabilities despite clear disunity among its leadership? No German expert on Iran or Middle East has been able to answer this question.

2. The fact that Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons have created existential problems for Israel and Arab neighbor states has been ignored. Israel can be truly extinguished with just a few nuclear bombs, and Iran’s Arab neighbors fear that a nuclear Iran will turn into the dominant power in the Middle East. This threat perception is a reality in the region—and it is not so far off from the truth. For Israel, a line is about to be crossed: If Iran makes surprising progress in its nuclear weapons program, the possibility of Israel being the first to deploy a nuclear weapon cannot be excluded.

The “Iranian threat” does not have much in common with the Soviet threat. Rather, it resembles a classic Greek tragedy, which begins with the selfish actions of one actor and ends in a massacre that benefits no one—but that is how it always ends. German policies, including those of the federal government, have largely failed to recognize the nature of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. For most German politicians, the main threat continues to be US-led regime change (following the Iraq model) and the resulting antagonisms that would be felt among allies and at home. German policies seek to cultivate multilateral diplomatic solutions (sometimes with sanctions, sometimes with generous proposals). Such policies mean well, but they are unrealistic. 

For the past two years, the leadership in Teheran has made clear that it is no longer interested in a diplomatic solution. It has made every effort to buy time in order to make progress in its nuclear weapons and rocket programs. As this policy has emerged, Israel, the Gulf region, and Washington have become more nervous, and the call for more effective measures has grown. There are some politicians and experts in the US who cultivate the image of Iran as boogeyman, but they do not shape the country’s policies. The Obama Administration is worried about the strategic consequences of Iran’s nuclear program—which could be destabilizing.     

The foreseeable future will see increased calls for tougher sanctions and the deployment of military forces. German policy makers should thus prepare for a rough period. Tougher sanctions mean that Iran will be hindered from using the international finance system to develop its crude oil exports and that a comprehensive trade boycott against Iran will be declared, which would notably reduce its crude oil exports. The Iranian regime has only been able to carry out its escapades because of the large returns it gets from crude oil exports. Cutting off this source of income is the main goal of the tougher sanctions policy. The success of these measures will largely depend on if, and under which conditions, China and Japan participate—both countries purchase much of their crude oil from Iran. But one thing is certain: The more effective these sanctions are, the more angry and aggressive Teheran’s reactions will be.

The deployment of military forces certainly will not mean an invasion of Iran with the hopes of overthrowing the mullah’s regime. This option is completely unrealistic and is not even in question in Washington—if it was ever really taken seriously at all. Rather, a military option would mean using gradual alternatives to forceful intervention. Such an approach is already being used as evidenced by the frequent explosions in Iranian military facilities and attacks against leading representatives of Iran’s nuclear weapons and rocket programs. Whoever planned and executed these attacks—whether intelligence services, members of the Iranian opposition, or a coalition of the two—assumes that these programs can be interrupted, slowed, or stopped through the use of violence. The most likely forms of official military deployment would be limited air strikes against sensitive nuclear facilities (surgical air strikes for a limited time period) or a naval blockade to force an embargo on weapons and nuclear components or even to stop Iranian crude oil exports. These options are not without risk, as Iran would seek to counter such actions with forms of retribution abroad—be it massive rocket attacks against Israel from Southern Lebanon, attacks in Germany or the United States (likely by members of Hezbollah rather than Iranian business people), the resumption of the war between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, or attempts by the IRCG to cut off international shipping lanes in the Gulf. It remains to be seen if these escalation risks can be kept in check. What is certain is that military general staff in the United States and other countries are currently considering these options. This means that a “military option” could also include actions that disable Iran’s naval and rocket capabilities. NATO’s planned missile defense system in Europe can also be considered a “military option” in this context.

What can and should German policy seek to achieve in this situation? First, Germans must stop assuming that the United States wants to overthrow the regime in Teheran through military intervention. Second, the disastrous rhetoric of fundamentally ruling out military options when dealing with Iran needs to end. Beneath this rhetoric is the old pacifist bromide that political problems cannot be solved through violence. This assumption has been refuted enough times throughout history—incidentally, the opposite assumption that such problems can only be solved through military means is also untrue. What is strange is that this popular pacifist argument is not only being made by the Greens—no one expects anything else from them—but has been argued by Foreign Minister Westerwelle who, as national chairman of the Free Democrats in 2009, won many votes by arguing that his party could be a realistic alternative to the Green Party. Perhaps we should all agree that in the face of actual challenges, foreign policy cannot be driven by common platitudes and the invocation of higher principles. Foreign policy is in large part about problem solving, and the measure of success should be effectively solving problems, not trotting out principles.       

German foreign policy should beware of the oft-stated position that the whole problem could be solved if we just “take Iran seriously for once.” It is unclear what this means. In most cases it means signaling to the leadership in Teheran that we are not interested in violent regime change. But since regime change in Iran is already beyond the capabilities of the United States (and is not their preferred option anyway after the experience in Iraq), exactly what “taking them seriously” means remains unsettled.

In this phase, German policy should not aim to veer away from the international convoy. Iran is the problem, not the United States. One would hope that—if the crisis escalates—Chancellor Merkel would be able to prevent individual members of the government from distinguishing themselves through public opposition to military action led by the United States. The federal government should also make clear that effective sanctions against Iran could become expensive. This includes increased gas prices, as well as restrictions for German firms that currently trade with Iran.  

For years, Iran has publicly defied the international community and the international order mainly—but not exclusively—with its nuclear program. It has done this from a position of relative weakness. Building on this weakness and pressuring Iran to come around through a forceful policy of sanctions and a credible threat of force should be possible—if it were not for the ongoing strife within and between Western democracies.    

JOACHIM KRAUSE is director of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, where he is also professor of political science.


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