Germany on tenterhooks
German industry is divided on links with Iran; Social Democrats, Left hit by factional fights
In these weeks, Germany, like the world, is on a tight-rope where the walker seems to be teetering above Niagara Falls or, worse yet, the fiery crater of the Kilauea volcano. A Trump-Netanyahu drama is being staged; each is playing his part on cue. Only days after Netanyahu's press conference attack on Iran, Trump tore up the U.S. copy of the Iran nuclear agreement. Only hours after that, Israel launched its heaviest missile strike in Syria since 1973, with a reported 28 warplanes hitting Iranian sites south, north, and east of Damascus, including a munitions warehouse at the capital's international airport.
Netanyahu called this a reprisal for Iranian military attacks against Israeli positions on the Golan Heights a day earlier: "Four rockets were intercepted by the Israeli aerial defense system, while 16 others fell short of their targets. No injuries or damage reported."
Some observers noted that Israel has frequently been firing away inside Syria in recent months and that international law and UN decisions view the Golan Heights as part of Syria, though occupied by Israel since 1967. But regardless of any such niceties, Netanyahu warned, "I repeat: Whoever hits us, we will hit back sevenfold. And whoever prepares to strike at us, we will act to strike at them beforehand. This is what we have done, and this is what we will continue to do."
The danger of direct confrontation between two major world powers in Syria intensified. Both control thousands of atomic weapons, mostly with very thin triggers. The Middle East expert of the International Crisis Group in Brussels, Heiko Wimmen, said: "We are getting closer to the brink." With the Trump-Netanyahu love-knot holding tight, both are hunting for chances to hoist war banners, evoke patriotic unity and thus keep their very shaky thrones. And now the Gaza shootings – and the Jerusalem embassy provocation! My thoughts return involuntarily to Kilauea – and Hiroshima.
What about Germany, the central pillar of an also shaky but still very important European Union? It can play a crucial role in this balancing act above the crater. Since its creation it has always been a faithful associate – some say a vassal – of U.S. big business interests; massive trading with entwined investment and military partnership have never been questioned.
Big German auto-makers established themselves in the U.S., most happily in right-to-work southern states with no union interference; the war criminal BASF firm continues to spread chemicals along the Gulf Coast, while Aldi and Lidl have spread their rivalry to the U.S. and Amazon is pushing out retailers and exploiting employees in Germany (and Poland) as energetically as McDonald's and Burger King have been doing for years. The Deutsche Bank is busy as ever on both sides of the Atlantic.
Powerful interests support lasting "trans-Atlantic ties" while Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen keeps plugging her campaign to meet Trump-NATO demands for soaring military spending. The German Bundeswehr is never modern enough for her, its firepower within Germany, Europe (at Russian borders) and in glory fields from Mali or Niger to Afghanistan and Syria never suffices for what she calls German "responsibility" as a world power. Barely hidden behind her snappy appeals for tanks, planes, or drones are the grasping, gauntleted fists of Raytheon and Lockheed, Rheinmetall and Thyssen-Krupp.
Syria and Iraq are largely ruined but the plains, mountains, and cities of Iran beckon more temptingly than ever after the breach of the Iran treaty and Sheldon Adelson, the multi-billionaire casino mogul of the Vegas Strip, Singapore and Macao and a power behind both Trump and Netanyahu, has been opposing treaties with Iran for years. In October 2013 he said "What are we gonna negotiate about?" and urged an atomic explosion on some desert in Iran: "Then you say, 'See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran… So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development."
But in Germany, other forces have been re-investing in Iran and yearn to normalise trade with Russia. Airbus planes for Tehran airlines, chemicals, machines, fruits and vegetables for Russia – all kinds of products were sold there until the US-commanded sanctions cut the stream to a brooklet. Will all of Trump's tariff war measures, his scolding demands for more NATO rearmament, his climate control withdrawal and now, despite all pleas, the abrogation of the Iran Treaty, end up with European capitulation or with new, unprecedented resistance? Many mixed signals – including Merkel's occasionally surprising criticism of Trump policy – signal a tug-of-war in the paneled skyscrapers of Frankfurt, Munich, and Hamburg where policies are cooked up.
Mike Pompeo, Trump's new Secretary of State, warned all too clearly: "The sanctions regime that is in place now is very clear on what the requirements are." Richard Grenell, the new far-right U.S. ambassador to Berlin, forgot any diplomacy he may have picked up and threatened in a tweet: "German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately." The same embargo screws used for decades against anyone trading with Cuba, though defended in the UN only by Israel, could be very painful. But at first Western European leaders criticised Trump's decision to scrap the nuclear deal and pledged to uphold their side of the agreement.
Trans-Atlantic glue is strong, however, and U.S. trade is a very big stick. Despite all talk about Trump-Putin ties, U.S. sanctions and hostility towards Russia and Iran have a good chance of prevailing. One German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had offered a few rays of hope for less one-sided obedience, was kicked upstairs to the largely ceremonial job of President. His successor, Sigmar Gabriel, after wavering hesitantly toward détente, was also ejected – not up but out altogether!
Heiko Maas, the new German Foreign Minister, also a Social Democrat, has thus far displayed, along with a total lack of charisma or any other notable virtue, an inclination to move further rightward than even see-sawing Angela Merkel. His Moscow meeting, arranged only after he had jumped aboard every available anti-Russian wagon, was unsurprisingly a flop. He must still see fearsome red flags over Russia; despite the atlas, Washington seems closer to his Berlin office than Moscow. But unless all signatories hold together, including the latter two, the Iran treaty is lost, regardless of the consequences. And Theresa May is already slithering westward.
Resistance has not been a strong point of the Social Democrat Party since well before Heiko Maas. As part of the ruling coalition, it offers no echoes of a one-time defiant past which really ended in 1914 when it supported World War I – and kept going from there. But with its poll figures dipping to a shocking all-time low of 17 or 18 percent, its members are very restless. At its April Congress, chairperson (and caucus chair) Andrea Nahles from the conservative leadership was elected so scantily – a long-time record of only 66.4 per cent – that she could not squeeze out the semblance of a "victory" smile. A year earlier her predecessor, Martin Schulz, had received a 100 percent support vote.
Her one opponent, Simone Lange, the widely-unknown mayor of northern Flensburg (who grew up in socialist East Germany), took positions well to the left of party officialdom. The treatment she got was much like that given Bernie Sanders. Totally ignored till the very end, denied the chance of a debate, permitted one short speech, she surprised everyone by getting one-third of the votes (and overwhelming cheers from the non-voting audience). She warned of the consequences if the party kept to the right; once again one had to think of Washington, DC.
But the SPD was not the only party facing inner conflict. The LINKE (Left), heading toward a congress in Leipzig, is still torn, especially between those supporting co-chair Katja Kipping and those backing Sahra Wagenknecht, co-chair of the Left caucus in the Bundestag. While many attribute the conflict at least in part to personal rivalry between the two (but rarely to their two male partners), a maze of issues is at stake. The coming Leipzig Congress of the Linke on June 8 to 10, is going to be crucial. IPA
(The writer is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. The views expressed are strictly personal)