BERLIN, Germany — When Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sat down for talks in Istanbul with six world powers this week, he could have quoted German philosophy and poetry.
Henning Riecke, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, once took part in a discussion session in Tehran in which Jalili demonstrated an impressive knowledge of Germany’s intellectual history.
“He could easily quote German philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger and the closeness of Goethe to the [Persian poet] Hafez,” Riecke said.
Iranians feel a kinship with Germany, experts say. For anyone wondering how Germany came to be tacked onto the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to make the ad hoc P5+1 group dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there is in fact a sound logic behind the inclusion.
Germany has a special relationship with Iran that, in spite of frequent disappointments including Saturday’s news that no progress was made in persuading Iran to rein in its nuclear program, did at least help get Tehran to the negotiating table and keep it there.
“There are good reasons why Germany should be in the talks. Germany has a traditionally good relationship with Iran,” Riecke said. “The Iranians never fail to point out Germany’s deep closeness with Iran. They say we Germans are close to them because we are both Aryans. We usually stop the talk about that.”
Unlike Britain and to some extent France — who make up the P5 along with the U.S., China and Russia — Germany has no messy colonial history in the region. Iran feels a kinship with Germany as a country that, like itself, is a regional giant.
“The Iranians see a lot of parallels. [They] see Germans as natural partners,” Riecke said.
The two countries have a long and rich economic history and Germany remains, despite sanctions, one of Iran’s biggest trading partners. Indeed trade grew 2.6 percent between January and November last year to $4.7 billion even though major German firms including Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and Daimler curtailed their business with Iran because of EU sanctions.
Germany’s economic history with Iran goes back a century, during which Germany has accepted that an independent Iran was in its own interests, said Walter Posch, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“It has built up technological skills that were very much appreciated by the Iranians.”
Furthermore, it has been pragmatic. While it has always pressed the issue of human rights, sometimes sparking tension, it has “never questioned the outcome of the [1979 Islamic] revolution or the nature of the regime.”
Germany’s involvement reflects its strong urge to push for diplomatic rather than military solutions in dealing with troublesome countries and also Europe’s urge to present a common foreign policy.
In 2003, European foreign policy went through a relevance crisis because EU countries had split over the Iraq war, Posch said. When the U.S. began to ratchet up pressure to take tough action against Iran, Europe had to assert itself, making sure it was involved and speaking with one voice.
Europeans traditionally favor diplomacy over military action and this was a view Europe needed to put to the United States.
“If Europe had no role in this, there would be no European role in matters of importance ever again,” Posch said.
Germany’s then foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, took the initiative and, along with Britain and France, formed the “E3” group of countries to tackle the Iran problem — even though there was no clear legal or practical framework for them to act. Nevertheless, it positioned Germany in a central role in ratcheting the atmosphere back down again and pushing the international community towards negotiations.
“They had better contacts to Iran. They could convince the U.S. they were serious. It was a continuation of a good will-based policy of Germany’s, based on mutual acceptance — not power politics but politics of negotiation.
“The Germans are very well placed. It worked impressively. They couldn’t deliver a solution but they could transform the basic ideological and geostrategic confrontation between Iran and the U.S. into a framework of negotiations over the nuclear program.”
So has Germany’s special relationship paid dividends? Obviously there is still some way to go. The P5+1 powers were reportedly “disappointed” with progress at the Istanbul talks.
But the European tilt to the P5+1 group, which is sometimes tellingly referred to as the E3+3, was instrumental in creating a united front within the international community against Iran, Posch said.
“In a way it’s the P5 under E3 leadership,” Posch said. “The U.S. has increasingly appreciated that the E3 made a common position with the Chinese and the Russians possible.
“It shows the international community is in disagreement in Iran. At the same time, they are willing to find a negotiated solution. This is the basis for diplomacy to work.”
We’ve yet to see how it will play out but Posch said there was still good reason to be optimistic in the long run.
“I’m cautiously positive about the signs from the Iranians. They want to negotiate. They showed they are willing to de-escalate.”