While most analysts agree the nuclear accord is untouchable, the German leader could be persuaded to address concerns related to Tehran’s ballistic missiles and regional adventurism
There has been relatively little build-up to this week’s visit to Israel by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Western world’s second most powerful leader who generally has been regarded as a close ally of the Jewish state. But the trip comes amid growing tensions between major European capitals and Jerusalem, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu having used his pulpit at United Nations General Assembly to accuse the continent’s dominant players of appeasing Iran by attempting to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord.
The charge directed at Germany carries particular weight given the criticism harkens back to attempts by Britain and France to mollify Hitler with the 1938 Munich Agreement. This green-lighted the Nazi chief’s annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia but did not, as was intended, curb his expansionism, which, underpinned by a rabidly racist and genocidal ideology, eventually led to the deaths of tens of millions of people during World War Two.
The Israeli premier has drawn parallels between the Nazis and Iran’s theocratic rulers, who likewise have threatened to destroy the Jewish nation as they use Shiite proxies throughout the Middle East to wreak havoc and increase their influence. According to Netanyahu, all of this comes at no cost for Tehran vis-à-vis its nuclear arms ambitions.
That London, Paris and Berlin are three primary parties to another contentious deal with a rogue regime is not lost on a prime minister that has warned of history’s propensity to repeat itself.
Indeed, while Netanyahu has been the most vocal proponent of United States President Donald Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iranian nuclear accord), Merkel has applied equal but opposite force in order to keep the deal alive.
“We are determined to protect European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran,” top European diplomats wrote at the time, adding that the EU would re-institute a so-called “blocking statute” that essentially prohibits firms in the 28-nation bloc from complying with American restrictions.
More recently, Britain, France and Germany, along with Russia and China, reiterated their vow to continue business-as-usual with Tehran and announced various mechanisms to circumvent a second tranche of U.S. financial penalties targeting the Islamic Republic’s crucial energy and shipping sectors set to take effect in November.
“Mindful of the urgency and the need for tangible results, the participants welcomed practical proposals to maintain and develop payment channels notably the initiative to establish a Special Purpose Vehicle…related to Iranian exports, including oil,” a communique by the countries, in addition to Iran, read in part. Of the ideas purportedly floated was the creation of a barter system in which European goods would be exchanged for Iranian crude, thus evading the need to work through international banking systems.
Experts are divided on the potential efficacy of the effort especially considering President Trump’s threat to impose secondary sanctions on European companies that transact with Iran, which could bar them from the American marketplace. However, there is little debate that the initiative is diametrically opposed to the policies and interests shared by Washington and Jerusalem.
“The calculation for Europe is different than that of Israel, given the fact that [the Iranian nuclear issue] does not have the same acute security implications and a kind of existential dimension,” Professor Richard G. Whitman, Associate Fellow in the Europe Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, explained to The Media Line. “As regards the U.S., its approach is more macro from a geopolitical standpoint as Washington sees Tehran’s ‘nefarious’ activities as destabilizing in the Middle East.
“The Europeans believe the Trump administration has moved away from a collective deal so they are holding the line,” he elaborated. “The agreement shows that the EU can play at the big table, and, allied to that, is a particular world view that considers a multi-lateral diplomatic approach as preferable. From Europe’s perspective, no alternative option has been presented that is more likely to succeed.”
Shimon Stein, formerly Israel’s ambassador to Germany, agrees that “under the circumstances Berlin sees the JCPOA, though not ideal, as the maximum that could be achieved to curb Iranian ambitions to acquire a nuclear capability. Nevertheless,” he explained to The Media Line, “there are other side-issues that could be subject to discussion [between Netanyahu and Merkel] such as Iran’s ballistic missile program; its regional behavior; and Tehran’s involvement in terrorism. But the atomic deal is not subject to revisions so differences in this regard cannot be bridged.”
Some analysts argue that Europe’s policy of addressing the nuclear file in isolation is short-sighted, a position that gained further credence in July when a diplomat stationed at the Iranian embassy in Austria was arrested for planning a terrorist attack against a dissident group’s convention in Paris. On Tuesday, French authorities were at it again, conducting a massive counter-terrorism operation in the north targeting a center with alleged ties to Tehran’s terror proxy Hizbullah and Iranian sleeper cells in the country.
As regards Germany, specifically, an estimated one thousand Hizbullah members are operating freely within its borders, a danger liable to be rammed home by Netanyahu when he meets with Merkel, who, for her part, undoubtedly will have what to say on the stalemated peace process, ongoing chaos in the Gaza Strip and, perhaps something the two leaders can agree on: the need to stem the incidence of violent anti-Semitism in Germany.
Here, too, Netanyahu might connect the dots between Merkel’s open-door refugee policy and Iran’s role in the war in Syria, which created one of the worst humanitarian disasters and resulting mass migrations since 1945. If nothing else, reference to the year ought to give the German chancellor pause, considering her assertion over the weekend that due to the Holocaust Berlin has a “special responsibility” to ensure Israel’s well-being.
Once relegated to the realm of political rhetoric, Merkel’s admonition could now wax prophetic if the Islamic Republic is able to fulfill its vow to finish what a previous chancellor began.