Cooperation between Germany and Iran is a long-term project

17.10.2015 - Interview

Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier discusses the nuclear agreement with Iran in an interview published in the Iranian daily Iran on 17 October 2015.


In an interview you gave before the nuclear agreement between Iran and the 5+1 group was successfully concluded, you emphasised how many subjects would present themselves for bilateral talks and Iranian-German cooperation if the nuclear issue were resolved. Could you elaborate on what those areas of cooperation are? Could we say that a new chapter has begun in relations, particularly diplomatic relations, between the two countries?

Well, it’s worth noting that this is the first official visit to Iran by a German Foreign Minister in more than ten years. And the list of subjects to discuss is indeed a long one – from implementation of the Vienna agreement on the nuclear programme, to political dialogue and revitalisation of economic ties, to promotion of cultural exchange between our two countries. We have started negotiations on a cultural affairs agreement. If we can bring them to a successful conclusion quickly, that will visibly demonstrate our desire to build our relationship on new and broader foundations.

Above all, I hope that we can make progress on finding ways to calm the terrible conflicts that are jeopardising the stability of the entire region, from Syria, to Iraq, to Yemen and Afghanistan, and which have triggered the greatest refugee disaster since the Second World War. Germany has taken on a lot of responsibility in hosting refugees and providing humanitarian assistance. Given its political influence in the region, Iran has the potential to shoulder a good deal of responsibility in the search for solutions in the interests of ordinary people. This will in our view involve committing to peaceful coexistence with all its neighbours, including Israel.

Sigmar Gabriel, Deputy Federal Chancellor and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, was the first Western figure to travel to Tehran after Iran and the 5+1 group reached their agreement, when he visited with a delegation. Does this decision by Berlin to swiftly send a business delegation to Tehran indicate that economic relations with Iran are a special priority for Germany?

Without a doubt, Iran and Germany have a lot to offer one another when it comes to economic affairs. Germany depends on international trade more than nearly any other country in the world, Germany’s reputation in Iran remains good and many German companies enjoyed strong positions and close business ties in Iran before the nuclear-power dispute. Naturally, after the long years of stagnation caused by the dispute about the nuclear programme, the business community is very interested in rapidly investigating the opportunities opening up with the end of sanctions.

However, it is also important to us to send the message that we are sincere in what we say about lifting sanctions. If Iran meets its obligations, the economic situation will improve swiftly and tangibly. And that generates the space for powerful revitalisation of our economic relations.

Before the agreement had been reached, the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce estimated that, once it was, annual trade between Tehran and Berlin would amount to around 12 billion euros, about half of that from Iranian imports to Germany. What are considered in Berlin to be the most important goods and services imported from Iran, and what part will oil play in those imports?

Iran is currently exporting less than half the volume of crude oil it used to before sanctions were imposed. We know how important it is to Iran today to rapidly modernise the petrochemical sector in order to export more and enhance its most important source of foreign currency. Iran is therefore lobbying intensively for foreign investment, including German investment. I think it would be sensible for Iran to further diversify its economy and that other products and services could be of interest to the German market alongside energy sources.

Tehran is interested in attracting investment from other countries and importing technology. What markets and sectors of the Iranian economy is Germany most interested in?

During his recent visit to Berlin, Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister estimated that more than 100 billion euros’ worth of foreign direct investment was required in that sector alone. A whole range of large and medium-sized German companies are interested in bringing their expertise and own resources to bear in long-term projects in this area. There are of course certain elements of the investment climate that still need be be improved, but I do see great potential for collaboration in this field. German companies want to get involved for the long term and are not simply looking for short-term profits. That above all is why they want investment opportunities characterised by stability and a secure legal footing. Iran is also interested in expanding its renewables sector. In transforming our own energy system, Germany is known to be playing a leading role in this regard. When it comes to renewable energy, German companies are globally at the top of their field.

Developing transport infrastructure will be another important topic. Economic growth demands up-to-date transport routes suited to the needs of the market and requires Iran to be part of continental corridors for transport by land, sea and air. German companies have a wealth of experience in that field.

Can the way the Iranian nuclear issue was resolved through negotiation serve as a model for settling regional crises with the involvement of the conflict parties and major powers?

The agreement reached in Vienna did show one thing, namely that diplomacy still has the potential to peacefully resolve conflicts and find compromises, even in the trouble spots of the world where the parties start out hostile and distrustful. And the nuclear-programme negotiations showed that a format like the E3+3 can help smooth over deep-seated political misgivings between individual players and shift the focus onto shared interests, when all parties are prepared to engage. We decided together in New York to use the E3+3 framework to talk to Iran about regional issues too.

Whether and how this model can be transferred to other conflicts remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the region urgently needs mechanisms to facilitate talks between opposing sides and clear the way for conflicts to be resolved peacefully. That is precisely what we will be discussing when the Munich Security Conference ‘Core Group’, a unique group of governmental representatives and security experts from around the world, holds its first meeting in Tehran.

The Syria crisis has developed into one of the most gruelling crises of the region. Its effects include the wave of Syrian refugees making their way to European countries, including Germany. This has strengthened Europe’s resolve to seek a real solution to the Syria crisis. How essential does Germany as a European power consider Iran’s involvement in collaborative international efforts to combat ISIS?

It’s no secret that Iran’s position on Syria is not always the same as Germany’s. Nonetheless, there is one objective that we surely all share, namely an end to the bloodshed and the preservation of Syria as a functioning state in which people of all ethnic and religious groups will one day be able to peacefully coexist once more.

However, this cannot be achieved while the main stakeholders keep placing all their hopes in military action. I would wish for Iran to use its influence to bring the Syrian Government to the negotiating table to begin a political transition process. Only once this fratricidal war in Syria has been brought to an end will it be possible to put up effective resistance to the extremism of ISIS, which has been spreading from day to day like a cancer in the midst of chaos and violence.

The most pressing concern for the people living in Syria is for the Security Council decisions on protecting civilians to be finally put into practice – i.e. for the barrel-bomb and mortar attacks on residential areas to be stopped and humanitarian access granted everywhere. We could really use Iran’s help on that score too.

What do you see as the main reasons why is was possible to reach an agreement on nuclear power in spite of the initial lack of trust on both sides and the major differences of opinion regarding the subject matter?

The crucial thing was that the outcome was a win-win situation politically and that both sides understood politically that an agreement which safeguarded everyone’s fundamental interests was possible. Those interests were the international community’s wish for a guarantee that Iran would not seek a nuclear weapon and Iran’s desire for sanctions to be lifted and its civilian nuclear programme to have a future.

When both sides have an interest in reaching agreement, then diplomacy, with a cool head, can find solutions – no matter whether there is distrust or even hostility between the parties. That’s the basis for my hope that other crises in the region can also be resolved. What will be required above all is political foresight, courage and not least an awareness that war and violence and reliance on military action will certainly not bring peace and stability – not in Syria, not anywhere.

Turning to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, where do you see challenges and how optimistic are you about the parties upholding the agreement?

When they reached agreement in Vienna, the negotiating parties, and the US and Iran in particular, proved that we did have the political will and the strength to lay aside the dispute about nuclear power and start a new chapter in relations between our countries. I also draw confidence from the fact that all the parties have already been upholding the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva for two years.

In all honesty, though, the real acid test is still to come. The essential provisions of the Vienna agreement don’t enter into force until Sunday. Only once both sides are actually and visibly fulfilling their obligations in a few months’ time will we know that the Vienna agreement is a success. It is now up to Iran to meet the conditions agreed on for sanctions to be lifted.

How do you evaluate the work of your counterpart Foreign Minister Zarif and the ‘Iranian nuclear team’ during the negotiations?

Javad Zarif is a tough negotiator. I’m sure there’s absolutely no fun to be had trying to sell him used cars. But the skill isn’t just in being tough, and toughness alone doesn’t lead to success. What Javad Zarif and his team did so well was not only to represent Iran’s interests with great determination but also to search just as determinedly for potential solutions which would be acceptable to both sides. The crucial factor in this success was that, since autumn 2013, we always had the impression, even in the most difficult moments, that the other side was honestly interested in reaching agreement.

During the negotiations on nuclear power, Germany played an effective role in the mitigation of differences of opinion and in the successful conclusion of the agreement. As one of those who were present for most of the negotiations, what in your opinion were the most difficult moments the negotiating parties faced, which made it seem as though the talks might fail – which sessions and which topics?

Trust is not something you can build overnight. It takes time. We sat together for many weeks in Geneva, Lausanne, Vienna and elsewhere, often explaining our positions to one another long into the night. As you know, we even broke a few records.

It’s no secret that the compromise reached on uranium enrichment was the result of tough and difficult negotiations. The same applies to the process of agreeing transparency measures – which were needed since all the obligations in the agreement of course need to be verified. Those were two topics where we wrestled over the crucial points for hours in Lausanne. But we did manage to find a solution that was viable and acceptable to all parties.

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