Germany’s Negotiable Human Rights Commitment

Nicht verhandelbar” (“non-negotiable”) is a recurring refrain among Germany’s political top brass, deployed to signal Berlin’s unbending commitments to inter alia: hosting Syrian refugees (2015), the Paris Climate Accords (2016), open borders within the EU (2018), guaranteeing Israeli security (2018), and most recently, the draft of the Brexit withdrawal agreement (2019).  All are “non-negotiable.”

Equally, Germany’s commitment to safeguarding ‘inviolable and inalienable’ human rights worldwide is declared to be “non-negotiable” by the Federal Foreign Office. Germany “takes an active stand worldwide against the death penalty and for political participation and legal protection, [and] defends the freedom of religion and belief…” Yet in its ties with Iran, Germany’s commitment to human rights is more situational than iron-clad.

Iran is one of the world’s leading human rights abusers, a country that executes more people than any other after China for the ‘crimes’ of same-sex relations, adultery, apostasy and ‘insulting the prophet.’ While Germany preaches human rights, it has nothing to say as Tehran rides roughshod over nearly every one of the 30 Articles in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And yet no other country provides as much combined financial sustenance and moral succor to the Iranian theocracy as Germany. 

Germany is Iran’s largest European trading partner by far. One thousand German small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the “hidden champions” of the German economy, continue to export crucial engineering technology and equipment to Iran – €2.7 billion worth in 2018. More than 100 of these “Mittelstand” have Iranian branches, and German companies will once again form the biggest contingent of European companies at the annual Iran Oil Show on May 2.

The wheels of German-Iran trade glide smoothly.

The Europäische-Iranische Handlesbank (eihbank), an Iranian-owned bank based in Hamburg, has made available billions of Euros in trade financing. Federally authorized entities provide insurance in the form of credit export guarantees. Unlike other major European airlines including British Airways and Air France-KLM, Germany’s national carrier Lufthansa continues to operate regular flights to Tehran ferrying business executives to and fro. And upon arrival, the German Chamber of Commerce hosts ski retreats for German and Iranian directors and their families in the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran.

Given the size, sophistication, and long roots of these business ties, it is not surprising that Germany is now scrambling to salvage the wreck of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) through ‘INSTEX,’ a mechanism designed to keep the taps of German-Iran trade flowing.

What is remarkable, however, is Germany’s readiness to provide political and moral cover to the Ayatollah’s regime. Given Berlin’s hard-won reputation as a standard-bearer for liberal values, German diplomatic acquiescence is a powerful symbolic source of legitimacy for Iran.

Earlier this year, on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic (which started with the Ayatollah-authorized hostage-taking of 52 Americans in February 1979), President Steinmeier sent a congratulatory telegram to Iran. Niels Annen, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, decided it was appropriate to join the party honoring the Revolution in the Iranian embassy in Berlin.

As widely reported in Germany, while toasting the regime there was “not a word of criticism” uttered about Iran’s “mass executions and torture [or] brutal persecution of women, minorities, and the opposition…”

And Annen’s boss, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who purportedly entered politics “because of Auschwitz,” is a particularly ardent apologist for the genocidal regime in Tehran, which regularly calls for the annihilation of Israel. Maas now leads the fight to save the JCPOA.

Together, Annen and Maas are in charge of the same German Foreign Ministry which supposedly takes a “non-negotiable” approach to human rights.

Germany’s propensity to look the other way is also echoed in its laissez-faire attitude to Iran’s primary foreign terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. Berlin declined to follow Britain’s decision to designate the entire group as a terrorist wing, due to a feeble differentiation between Hezbollah’s so-called “political” and “military” wings. In reality, there is no distinction. Hezbollah itself, which gets $700 million every year from Tehran, scorns the notion. Shamefully, Germany even allows close to one thousand Hezbollah members to reside in the country.

Thus, apart from a recent decision to ban Iran’s terrorist airline, Mahan Air – thanks in no small part to the U.S. Ambassador to German Richard Grenell – there are no other signs that Berlin’s “non-negotiable” phrase is anything more than a convenient but empty mantra.  Germany would not be the first country that fell short of its published ideals, of course. But as the engine of the European Union’s liberal democratic project, the gap between rhetoric and policy vis-à-vis Iran is embarrassingly wide.