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Berlin's Misguided Iran Policy: Why a Comparison with Russia is Helpful

This article first appeared in Internationale Politik (IP).

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chancellor Scholz’ subsequent proclamation of a Zeitenwende (historic turning point), German foreign and security policy are not only facing complete reorientation, but also the rubble of the policy towards Russia of the past 20 years. Ignoring the reality of the situation is no longer an option. The view of China and the fatal dependence of entire branches of German industry, and thus of the German economy as a whole, is finally the subject of broad public discussion. And yet, there is no indication of a change in thinking with regard to dealings with Iran.

On the contrary, Iran is either omitted completely from the debate on the Zeitenwende, or the concepts and ideas that have characterized Germany's Iran policy for decades are merely repeated. This not only demonstrates a misjudgment of the danger posed by Iran. It also raises concern that the same mistakes are being made as in the case of Russia - and this despite all the obvious parallels.

For one thing, there is the concept that economic interdependence and constant diplomacy could contribute to liberalization of domestic and foreign policy. It should be noted that "change through trade" has proven successful historically, at least, for example, with the recognition of human rights in the Helsinki Accords, which was then invoked by Russian dissidents. In contrast, the "critical dialogue" with Tehran, which pursues similar goals, has had no success for over three decades. The human rights situation in Iran remains catastrophic, and nothing has changed under Hassan Rouhani, who is looked upon in this country as a "reformer". Under President Ebrahim Raisi, the human rights situation is likely to worsen, as recent weeks have shown.

Both concepts have failed, however, and not only in terms of domestic policy. In the foreign policy of both countries, the denial of reality that Norbert Röttgen denounced in a recent interview is particularly obvious. In the case of Moscow, contrary to all evidence, the mantra in Berlin and other Western capitals was that there was no security in Europe against Russia. To this day, debate on Iran mainly focuses on the country’s perceived potential as a partner in stabilizing the Middle East. This is all the more astonishing because the Iranian regime makes clear that stabilizing the region is not in its interest at all. Only instability and failed statehood offer the Shiite regime opportunities to intervene in the majority Sunni neighboring states. In Iraq, Yemen, Syria and, not least, Lebanon, it is indeed Tehran, with the Revolutionary Guard and its subordinate or allied Shiite militias, which systematically prevents any stabilization and, in the process, commits the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Similar to Putin's Russia with regard to Ukraine and Georgia, the Khamenei regime has no interest in stability or democratization among its neighbors. Both understand such developments, quite rightly, as a threat to their own rule, since their own citizens could also demand democracy and human rights and turn towards the West.

There are further examples one could present, but the essential point is that comparison is highly worthwhile, as it provides insights for dealing with Iran.

It is essential that German foreign policy finally take the ideology factor seriously. The interests of regimes and actors on the other side of the negotiating table are sometimes based on irrational ideas and premises, in which case classical diplomacy is destined to fail.

In Putin's case, this ignoring of the ideology factor becomes clear, specifically in reference to Putin’s denial of Ukraine's right to exist. Neither the annexation of Crimea in 2014, nor the publication of Putin's historically and politically incoherent treatise, "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", nor the early deployment on the border of his neighboring country in the summer of 2021 prompted any significant reaction in Berlin. Undeterred, Western Europe continued to talk about diplomatic solutions, instead of recognizing that Putin, like other totalitarian rulers before him, definitely means what he says. Until recently, it seemed inconceivable that Putin, in his irrational and imperialistic-revisionist delusions, would actually invade his neighboring country. And that he would do so even though the catastrophic economic and thus political consequences of his actions were pointed out to him - late but clearly. It cannot be assumed that earlier large-scale arms deliveries to Kiev would have deterred Putin from going to war, but at least they would have put Ukraine in a much better military position at the start of the war.

This conceptual failure in the case of Putin has not changed the German debate on Iran. To this day, little notice is taken in Berlin of the fact that the anti-Western, conspiracy-ideological, and paranoid worldview of Iran's rulers actually guides their actions. The mullahs' messianic-apocalyptic state ideology, at the center of which is an eliminatory antisemitism that works toward the destruction of Israel and thus the murder of millions of Jews, is not taken seriously but dismissed as propaganda. The question arises, especially in Germany, why this hardly finds any echo in policy discussion. What is the meaning of the often-invoked learning from history, if a regime announces that it wants to murder millions of Jews, and this, here in Germany of all places, is not understood as a threat to be taken seriously and is not reacted to accordingly?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Iranian regime's annihilation threats against Israel should make clear that diplomacy towards Tehran has little chance of success without hard power. The situation calls for a tough policy of sanctions combined with credible military deterrence.

In the recent past, German foreign and security policy has certainly drawn the right conclusions in other cases of dealing with totalitarian actors. For example, quite rightly, no one in Berlin has entertained the idea of negotiating with the "Islamic State" or al-Qaeda. This is not a plea for military intervention against Iran. Nevertheless, the regime in Tehran is nothing other than the Shiite form of Islamist and antisemitic fanaticism embodied in a state. The German government should finally recognize this and draw the necessary conclusions.

Dr. Remko Leemhuis is Director of American Jewish Committee Berlin.