Connect to share and comment

The US-Germany divide on Iran

Will the two allies stick together in imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic?

Protesters with Israeli flags are reflected in a sign in front of the Iranian embassy in Berlin, Oct. 29, 2005. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — A narrative has attached itself to the American "carrot-and-stick" policy toward Iran, the broad outlines of which go something like this: With Iran failing to bargain in good faith over its nuclear program and China refusing to back meaningful penalties through the United Nations Security Council, the United States and Europe are going to be left on their own with the task of imposing sanctions that are tough enough to persuade Iran to change its behavior.

As much as that story clarifies the course ahead, though, it also obscures important facts — not least, the potential for transatlantic rifts. Germany, for example, may be one of America's closest partners in the nuclear negotiations, but it's also a country that has a very different relationship and very different interests toward Iran. And those differences will undoubtedly make Germany more hesitant than the U.S. to support further sanctions.

For one, America's penchant for imposing punishment on Iran is itself the product of peculiar historical circumstances. The German public, one shouldn't forget, doesn't harbor memories of its diplomats being held hostage in Tehran.

Indeed, the 1979-1981 hostage crisis was the first skirmish of the low-level war that the U.S. and the Islamic Republic have waged for the past 30 years. It's no secret that there's been little love lost between America and Iran: The U.S. public muses on the possibility of military strikes against Iran, while the Iranian regime indulges heartily in anti-American rhetoric, and each has repeatedly tried, through force and diplomacy, to subvert the interests of the other in the Middle East region. It's a relationship that has left America with no diplomatic relations and minimal trade ties with Iran, and little compunction to consider changing its stance.

Germany, by contrast, has maintained sound political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic. It's a policy that has made eminent sense economically: Germany has long been one of Iran's leading trading partners, selling nearly 4 billion euros worth of goods to Iran in 2009 and earning a reputation in Tehran for reliable business dealings and industrial craftsmanship. Iran primarily purchases steel, engineering machines and industrial chemicals from Germany.

Furthermore, according to Iranian statistics, Germany is the country's leading foreign investor, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Most prominently, German companies have often lent their expertise to the Iranian energy sector. The German government has long thought of Iran as an important emerging market, and sees fit to bolster trade with Iran by providing billions of euros worth of trade guarantees.