A chance for leadership: German foreign policy after the killing of Qassem Soleimani

Germany will need to do some serious soul-searching if it is to effectively de-escalate the Iran crisis and revive the damaged nuclear agreement

ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow
US Government ©

The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force, on the morning of 3 January elicited a robust response from the German government, with a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office describing the US operation as a “reaction to a series of military provocations for which Iran is responsible”. This stood in stark contrast to the assessment of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Agnes Callamard, who argued that the killing violated international law and threatened to further loosen restraints on military action. Washington did not appear to have warned its European or Middle Eastern allies about the killing, which brought the United States and Iran to the brink of a major military confrontation. While Berlin did not directly criticise Washington’s actions, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas revealed that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “not so pleased that [the German government] did not agree 100 percent with the US”. In all, the killing highlighted many of the growing challenges Germany faces in navigating the Iran crisis.

While most German parliamentarians and other political actors have called for de-escalation above all else, it remains unclear what this means in substantive policy terms. Some observers have criticised Germany for not sending high-level delegations to Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia – the last of which has been remarkably careful to emphasise the need for de-escalation. However, German officials have reportedly remained in contact with all parties to the conflict throughout the crisis. On 10 January, Maas chaired a special session of the Foreign Affairs Council on the killing, at which European foreign ministers emphasised their continued support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, Richard Grenell, US ambassador in Berlin and a confidant of Trump, used social media to pressure European countries to withdraw from the agreement. And – as the Washington Post subsequently reported and the German defence minister confirmed – the US threatened France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the E3) with a 25 percent tariff on their automobile exports unless they criticised Iran on the nuclear deal and triggered the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism (DRM). This was a highly unusual threat to make to an ally, even given the US maximum pressure campaign on Iran and the layer of secondary American sanctions that are supposed to push countries to align with the US position.

However, German officials have been careful not to remain equidistant between Iran and the US on foreign policy, even if the latter is increasingly erratic under President Donald Trump. Indeed, Germany still regards the US administration as a key ally and as fundamentally different from the Iranian government – which has been responsible for massive human rights violations, such as the alleged killing of more than 300 protesters in November 2019. Equally, the E3 decision to trigger the DRM was probably prompted more by increasing frustration with Iran’s steps towards non-compliance than US pressure. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s unilateral behaviour – which increasingly seems designed to destabilise the Iranian regime rather than to curb its nuclear ambitions – makes Germany’s declared goals to de-escalate and preserve the nuclear deal significantly more difficult to achieve.

It is now more important than ever for Europe to maintain a high profile in Iraq.

The nuclear issue aside, the current crisis raises questions about Germany’s and other European states’ commitments in Iraq. The governing coalition in Berlin has decided to withdraw the German military from Iraq: its forces will end their involvement in the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group (ISIS) in March 2020, and its training mission in Iraq – which involves 150 German soldiers – in September 2020. This creates a serious dilemma. Both missions might now be more important than ever before, given that the coalition has largely decimated but not entirely eliminated ISIS, and that a massive commitment is still needed to prevent the group’s resurgence. This commitment should be not only military but also economic, involving the reintegration of thousands of disenfranchised Iraqis who have lived under ISIS rule and a notoriously weak Iraqi state. Germany alone has invested more than €1 billion, and the European Union an additional €1 billion, in these stabilisation efforts and key initiatives in areas such as humanitarian support, governance, and infrastructure.

It is now more important than ever for Europe to maintain a high profile in Iraq. This is key to regional stability at a time when the United States’ commitment to the country is unpredictable and Washington may be losing support in the wider region. Because it refused to participate in the devastating US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the German government still has a lot of credibility and leverage in the country. With a view to the troubled transatlantic relationship, Europe could use its presence in Iraq to signal its increased commitment to burden-sharing in the region, and to gain more control in formulating a strategy to assist the country. But it is both the Bundestag – which would need to vote on every future renewed mandate – and the Iraqi leaders that will have the final say on these issues. In sharp contrast to Trump’s angry reaction to the Iraqi Parliament’s decision to remove foreign troops from Iraq, the German government emphasised that it would fully respect this and any future parliamentary decision.

Germany will need to do some serious soul-searching if it is to effectively de-escalate the Iran crisis, help revive the damaged nuclear agreement, reinforce its commitment to Iraq, and find a basis on which to work with a currently unreliable ally in Washington. As difficult as these tasks may be, they provide Berlin with a unique opportunity to raise its profile in the region.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow