Iran Forces Germany’s Hand
Prior to Gerhard Schröder yielding up his chancellorship of Germany to Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen by observers to be a key ally of Germany. Things are changing on that score as a result of three main influences currently at play.
First, there is the new foreign-policy initiative of Merkel, which seeks to revive U.S.-German relations. Second, there is the game, presently being played out in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, of exerting pressure on the European Union to stem its eastward push into former Soviet territory. And finally, there’s the weather, with a record freeze in Russia placing great strains on its capability to deliver gas both to its home market and the rest of Europe.
All three of these phenomena have coalesced at a crucial time in EU politics, particularly within Germany. It all has to do with the supply of, and demand for, energy.
To meet German and Western European demand for energy, the Germans thought that they had concluded a clever strategic deal to bypass Central and Eastern Europe by negotiating the Baltic Sea pipeline with Russia. In terms of German strategic interests, that was a classy move. Not so for the rest of the EU. This undersea pipeline will give Germany control over the distribution of gas from Russia to the principal EU nations.
But the Germans know that ultimate control of supply is at the well-head. This puts Russia in the driver’s seat in maintaining the flow of a whole third of Germany’s gas needs and over a quarter of Western Europe’s present needs. It becomes obvious, then, that the German-dominated EU, not least Germany itself, urgently needs an alternative source of supply. Thus it is that Iran enters into the equation.
Another significant factor in this scenario is the timing of Angela Merkel’s back-to-back visits to U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia’s President Putin last week. As Stratfor observed regarding the Bush-Merkel meeting, “This is a meeting about business. About Iran, about the European Union, about Russia, about Iraq, about China. About what happens when … Russia turns off natural gas exports again” (January 13).
It is significant that Stratfor mentioned Iran, the EU and Russia both foremost and together, for, in addition to Germany, these nations hold a vital key to the future of energy politics as it plays out on the world scene. China is also more than a bit-player on this particular stage.
Each of these nations knows full well that Iran is playing for the highest stakes in the global energy game, given that, based on latest figures, that country contains the largest proven reserves of hydrocarbons in the world, with Russia now in second position. Hence the West’s timidity in invoking any real penalties on Iran for flouting conventions in its current efforts to develop a nuclear capability. With Iran, regardless of the stridency of the rhetoric from the rest of the world, appeasement is the foreign policy of the day. The major energy-consuming nations dare not risk any move by Iran to further disrupt an already high-priced energy market.
In the scramble for energy resources, Germany, being the leading industrial economy in Europe, realized early that the nuclear option would be a prime negotiating tool in gaining favorable access to Iranian energy resources. It thus ensured an early place in the development of Iran’s nuclear technology with the signing, 30 years ago, of Germany’s first contract involved in this project. Since then, Russia, China and Germany have all aided and abetted Iran’s development of nuclear power, using various tricks of delay in contractual fulfillment as diplomatic carrots or sticks depending on the mood reflected by their major Islamic client.
But there is now a new kid on the block. The ayatollahs may have been extreme, but it appears that Iran’s current President Ahmadinejad is truly crazy. At the very least he is proving a volatile, unpredictable customer whose violent vocalizing against Israel, the United States and the EU is causing a whole reassessment by these nations of their foreign policies relative to this rising king of the south. Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ripped the UN seals off Iran’s stalled nuclear program and declared his eagerness to develop nuclear capability, despite any global opinion to the contrary. Hence German Chancellor Merkel’s rushed visits to the U.S. and Russia, with Iran high on the agenda.
Merkel’s diplomatic shuffling is helping to massage a temporary revival of the dying post-war alliance between Europe and the U.S. In a renewed relationship of convenience, “European powers are working closely with Washington on tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, their unity reinforced by Tehran’s rebuffs to more than two years of diplomatic efforts and by Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel” (Reuters, January 18).
Meanwhile, Russia presently supports EU efforts to talk the situation through with Iran rather than impose sanctions even though, as Reuters reports, “Britain, France and Germany say negotiations cannot resume unless Iran re-suspends fuel research. They back a proposal for Russia to enrich uranium on Iran’s behalf, but some EU officials say they doubt Tehran is seriously considering the idea” (ibid.). Germany, the EU, Russia and the U.S. are hence all caught in a bind on considerations as to their next move to constrain the Iranian leader.
This inflammatory situation, in addition to recent events interrupting the flow of gas from Russia to Europe, has only served to underline that Germany, and, by definition, the EU, can ill afford any prospect of failure in its development of an alternative energy source to that of its present chief supplier, Russia. Germany drastically needs a foreign-policy win in Iran. It is pulling out all stops to this end in efforts that could make or break Chancellor Merkel’s fragile coalition government. If Germany’s initiatives are met with a continuing thumbing of the nose by Ahmadinejad, this is destined to awaken the beast in the German breast. And that will be when Germany seeks to impose its will on this energy-rich nation by actions which ex-chancellor Kohl once described as Germany’s “more traditional methods”!