Agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme: “Adhering to agreements is an important point in foreign policy”

20.10.2017 - Interview

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Handelsblatt (interview published on 20 October 2017). Topics: agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, transatlantic relations, Brexit, displacement and migration.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Handelsblatt (interview published on 20 October 2017). Topics: agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, transatlantic relations, Brexit, displacement and migration.


It took 13 years for the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme to be signed. Now US President Donald Trump is threatening to throw it out. How serious is the situation?

Extremely serious. The collapse of the nuclear agreement with Iran is the biggest foreign‑policy danger facing us just now. The world would not become a safer place if, following the collapse of the agreement, Iran were to decide to go ahead and restart its nuclear programme. After all, it is the agreement that is ensuring that no nuclear bombs are being developed in Iran. And the direct risk of war will increase, because Israel has always said it would not merely stand by and do nothing if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. And all that is happening in our immediate vicinity, in a region where there are already lots of trouble spots.

Why is Trump fanning this conflict?

The disturbing thing about this US policy is that it is not at all about foreign policy or a new, well-thought-out strategy on Iran. Rather, it is about domestic policy in the States. Donald Trump’s aim is to destroy everything his predecessor Barack Obama painstakingly built up: healthcare reform, the Paris Climate Agreement and now the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme. He is downgrading foreign policy to make good on election propaganda. But there are some people in the US trying to counterbalance this – in the State Department and the Defense Department, and particularly in Congress. We are counting on them now.

Can Trump actually unilaterally terminate the agreement?

The Americans cannot denounce the agreement unilaterally, because it was adopted in the UN Security Council and also by the EU, France, the UK, Russia, China and Germany. But Trump does have the possibility of de facto destroying the agreement by imposing sanctions against Iran.

What do you mean by that?

Already, many German and European companies are wary of concluding deals in Iran because they are scared they will immediately be hit by national US sanctions. The American sanctions, you see, are also directed at companies which do business with Iran but also operate in the US. No one will take that risk. The business community is afraid that the uncertain political situation will make its investments simply disappear. In addition, most companies cannot get loans to do business with Iran because the international banks are cautious, given the Americans’ behaviour. So if Trump imposes extraterritorial sanctions, then potentially every bank that does business in America will be hit. In my opinion, this type of sanctions is an attack on our German export model.

How do you explain this tough stance on the part of the US?

As I said, it is above all a matter of domestic policy. But history and experience play a large role in how Iran is viewed. To this day, the US regards what happened in 1979 as profoundly humiliating. Virtually everyone in the US recalls the occupation of the US Embassy and the ensuing humiliations, as they were felt to be. Equally, the Iranians remember that it was the West and the United States that helped to crack down on the first democratic movements in Iran back in 1953, bolstering the Shah’s dictatorship. And when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used poison gas in the war against Iran, the US and the West stood by and did nothing. In other words, there is profound distrust between the two countries, and that plays a part as well.

The US is accusing Iran of destabilising the entire Middle East.

Yes, and these accusations are not without foundation. The only thing is, there is no sense in linking them with, of all things, the agreement freezing Iran’s nuclear programme. After all, if this agreement were to collapse, Iran’s role would become even more difficult, as would the security situation in the Middle East. The US is linking issues with the agreement that simply aren’t mentioned in it at all. For instance, Iran’s role in funding terrorist groups in the region, and its support for the Syrian dictator Assad. That part of the negotiations was deliberately kept apart from the nuclear agreement, so that agreement could be reached at all. And there should continue to be a “firewall” between the nuclear deal and the justified criticism of Iran for its support for groups listed here as terrorist organisations.

So what would change if the agreement were terminated?

Above all else, it would increase the risk of the hardliners in Tehran believing themselves justified in thinking that it’s impossible to conclude agreements with the West because they’re never adhered to. Adhering to agreements is an important point in foreign policy. If one were not to honour legally binding agreements, the majority of geopolitical conflicts could not be resolved. The repercussions of the collapse of the Iranian nuclear agreement would to that extent be disastrous: the North Korean dictatorship would never agree to a peaceful solution either. If we get to that stage, the risk of war would immediately increase.

Can escalation still be prevented?

There is always an alternative in politics. But it won’t invent itself, that much is certain. If North Korea and Iran get their hands on nuclear weapons, others might follow their example. Then our children will be living in a much more dangerous world than today’s. In the East‑West conflict, there were two blocs, both with nuclear weapons, keeping each other in check. If all sorts of states acquire nuclear weapons, there will no longer be any such control. And, in truth, there are only two, maybe three, countries that can prevent this happening, if they act together: the United States, Russia and China.

But those three countries do not trust each other an inch.

That’s right. We are currently in danger of seeing nuclear rearmament right here in the middle of Europe. So this is about far more than Iran or North Korea. All the disarmament agreements of the 1980s are being eroded. That is why Europe must raise its voice now. We must become the voice for arms control, confidence-building and disarmament. And, as difficult as we might find it, we need a new policy of détente towards Russia. Otherwise all this is going to get very, very dangerous.

Don’t we also need a policy of détente towards Washington?

Europe needs its own strategy for being able to talk to President Trump. The three heads of state and government of Germany, France and the UK have decided that the Foreign Ministers should mediate in Washington and try to find ways to keep the programme going. That is an important first step at least.

When will you be meeting your US counterpart Tillerson?

First I will be meeting with my British and French colleagues. As far as travel plans are concerned, obviously I need to take into account developments here at home in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, though, the world’s crises do not stop and wait for exploratory talks about government coalitions here in Germany. Germany needs continuity and reliability in its foreign policy in this period of transition, too. I will therefore remain acting Foreign Minister beyond 25 October, dealing with these issues in close coordination with the Federal Chancellor. It might sound a bit emotional, but we all have a responsibility to our country and must do our duty.

Does Europe have a real chance of preventing Trump from bailing on the Iranian agreement? He has taken little notice of Europe’s comments up till now.

We must not think that Trump is a layman or that he has no clue. He simply has a different agenda, one driven by domestic policy. That is his guiding principle. We saw it during the elections: there is a widespread view in America that the country is in danger. And that the priority now must be to restore it to its former glory in economic, political and cultural terms. This belief engenders a retrogressive stance, an orientation towards neo-isolationism.

How should Germany react to this shift in policy?

First we need to understand what is happening in the US. The country which, since its very beginnings, has been a pioneer of all that is modern, now has a government representing anti‑modernism. Instead of openness to the world: isolation from the world. Instead of shared responsibility: “America First”. Instead of fair global trade: national deals. Instead of the strength of international law: international law of the strongest. Lack of respect for the agreement, disregard for the processes of negotiation and for attempts to find a balance of interests is simply the consequence of this fundamental reorientation on the part of the US Administration.

So all the worries about a Trump presidency were justified?

Donald Trump is anti-modernism personified. He tells voters who are anxious, or who feel that they have been left behind or who are fearful of social decline, that he can protect them against the trials of the modern, interconnected world by withdrawing behind the protective walls of nationalism. The very country which integrated us Germans and Europeans into the Western order following the Second World War, thereby preventing for seventy years the re‑emergence in Germany or Europe of reactionary counter-revolutions like we saw at the beginning of last century – that very country is now seeing the spread of reactionary ideas.

What defines anti-modernism?

I am sure we are in the midst of a sea change. The cycle of a largely accepted and indeed actively driven globalised modernism is at an end. Not least its lack of rules has provoked an anti-modernist counter-movement. This movement believes it can once again create security by withdrawing into nationalism. It wants to shut others out, it replaces lost identities with nationalism and xenophobia. It longs for order, for old life patterns, and is against too much difference. And the modern globalised world is really confusing and creates huge uncertainties.

These ideas are spreading across the world.

Twelve million voters in France voted not for Macron, but for Le Pen. In Germany, thank goodness, the figures weren’t so high, but this anti-modernist trend can be seen here too – not just on the extreme far right, but also to some extent on the left of the spectrum. Just think of the resistance, some of it completely irrational, to free trade agreements in a country like Germany, which lives from trade. Given Trump, we would be happy today if we had agreements and rules. If you ask me about the causes of the CDU/CSU and SPD’s defeat in the Bundestag elections, I’d say that there is the real cause.

The handling of the refugee crisis is surely another.

That the sea change has been coming has been clear for a while, as we’ve seen with people staying away from the polls, despising and rejecting politics and politicians. Sea changes proceed slowly and have their own signals. The anxiety caused by the influx of refugees was in the end the catalyst for these anti-modernist emotions. And, if we’re honest, the representatives of modernism don’t yet have an adequate answer. There’s a lot of talk in my party about reorientation. But in essence it is a matter of finding a new, credible response to precisely this challenge.

What might this response look like?

In my view, it is less of a response along the old left-versus-right political lines and more about social liberal responses: social in the sense of security, fairness, solidarity and fair participation, and liberal in the sense of open-mindedness, curiosity and appreciation of diversity, and a rejection of narrow-mindedness, dogmatism and enmity. But also liberal in the sense of international rule of law and economic performance.

You are describing the ideas for which America once stood.

I belong to a generation which voiced huge criticism of the United States. But in the end we always knew that this idea of a Western order, of the rule of law, was guaranteed by the Americans. If the Americans reject this and propagate the law of the strongest, then we Europeans will not be able to fill the vacuum on our own. Then others will come onto the scene – China and the new Silk Road, with a very different geopolitical strategy. So I would urgently advise that we do not knock down our bridges with America.

There’s a lot at stake for German business especially. The US is imposing sanctions against Iran and Russia, and wants to use them against European companies too. How should we deal with this brutal economic and trade policy?

The tragedy is that everyone is suffering from this, including the Americans. This policy will not be without repercussions, also for America. For instance, if the Americans don’t let in any more steel from Europe, Europe could consider blocking imports of, for example, orange juice. At any rate I am sure that Europe will not sit back helplessly and do nothing.

And that’s supposed to worry Trump?

I admit that’s how I reacted, too, when I first heard that. But orange juice comes from Florida; European import barriers would have an unbelievable impact on Florida.

A state Trump absolutely needs to hold on to if he wants a second term.

What I want to say is this: a spiral of customs duties and sanctions brings nothing other than a loss of prosperity. So I believe we should do everything we can to prevent new sanctions. The danger of protectionism from Washington has not yet been eliminated. We can see that with the sanctions against Russia you mentioned earlier and possibly also import barriers against China. And we can see what is going on in the NAFTA talks with Mexico and Canada.

Europe is voicing warnings but seems to be quite at a loss.

There are two strategies for us. Firstly, we need to go to those American states where German companies are operating and demonstrate the advantages open trade brings for these regions in particular. We must invite skilled workers and talk with the Members of Congress who represent them. The second strategy is to strengthen Europe. Europe has one real disadvantage: not only is it not taken seriously enough in Washington, but also in Moscow and Beijing.

Europe was not able to enforce its own arguments when it came to sanctions against Russia.

The sanctions against Russia were proposed not by the Administration, but by Congress. Unfortunately, there again we are in the realms of domestic policy: There is one thing Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree on: they say Trump has too many dubious ties to Russia. That is why they want to contain him. In this case, Trump and his Administration are the ones trying to ease the sanctions.

Oughtn’t one to clearly say that these extraterritorial sanctions violate international law?

But you will not get far with that argument alone, if America comes to the conclusion that international legal principles are no longer important.

Doesn’t Trump’s policy of withdrawal also offer opportunities for Europe? Now that the US has buried the TPP free trade agreement, Japan and Australia are desperate to do business with Europe.

That is true, but it will not be easy, because there are differences with those countries too. Just think of the discussions about investment protection. Nonetheless, we must make use of these opportunities, particularly we Germans. We manufacture more cars and more wind turbines than we ourselves need. We are the motor of industrialisation in the world. We must not be afraid of free trade; it is our model of prosperity.

Quite a few SPD politicians take a different view.

I don’t believe we should sign everything either. There is a lot in the free trade agreements that is not in our interest. But to oppose free trade on principle is wrong. Social Democrats know that progress comes gradually, not overnight.

At the moment we are seeing regression rather than progress.

President Trump is not America. Take a look at the demographic development in the US. It will not be long until the majority of Americans no longer have European roots. People of Latin American and Asian origin and the African American population are accounting for an ever larger share of the population. These Americans do not think much of the policies of homogeneity or withdrawal from the world. That is the new America. So I am not really pessimistic at all for the medium term.

That is hardly reassuring for a worried German business community. Planned investment worth billions is already at risk from the US sanctions regime.

Of course it is understandable that major German industrial firms with business interests in the US do not want to end up on the Administration’s sanctions list. Europe must find an answer to these questions and learn to think in more strategic terms. Europe was once established “inwards”, to create peace and prosperity within. Now it must learn to act outwards.

The same goes for the Federal Government.

That’s true. German foreign policy, the Federal Foreign Office, must work on a strategy vis‑à‑vis the US. We have something similar for Russia and China. We will have to develop one for America. And so will Europe.

What role can Europe play between the major poles of power? Mediator? A role like the Swiss?

Precisely not. Nothing against Switzerland, but we are in danger of becoming a big Switzerland. We have the strength and the responsibility to represent our interests and positions with conviction.

Does President Macron of France have the potential to replace Merkel as Europe’s protector?

At the moment it is already ten-nil to France. If we carry on like this, it will soon be twelve‑nil. German policy-making, very much driven by financial-policy orthodoxy, is far too hesitant to align its position closer to that of France.

When one thinks about strengthening Europe, one has to conclude that Brexit is a huge step backwards.

The problem is that the British Government doesn’t know what it wants. The Conservatives are dreaming of closer ties with the US; they want to build on the special relationship between the Anglo-Saxon states. I can only say: be careful. If the majority of Americans have their origins in Latin America, Africa and Asia, then this relationship will become looser. It was Obama who first said that America was a Pacific nation. And so Britain’s future lies in Europe.

Does Chancellor Merkel still have the desire and the energy to play a decisive role in Europe’s further development?

During the refugee crisis the Chancellor exhausted the extent of liberality one can have in the CDU/CSU. And it will be no easier with the FDP. With regard to Europe, Christian Lindner ran an election campaign taking up the Euro-critical positions of AfD founder Bernd Lucke – very national-liberal. I would be happy if there were more Helmut Kohl in the CDU. He knew, after all, that there needs to be political union as well as monetary union. Europe’s strength is our only chance in this world. Our children will not have a voice, unless it is a single European voice.

Be honest with us. How hard is it to be leaving top-flight politics?

I very much like being Foreign Minister. But my wife said to me: “You know the old saying: Stop while you are still enjoying it.” She is right, unfortunately.

Mr Gabriel, thank you very much for the interview.

Interview conducted by Sven Afhüppe, Moritz Koch and Thomas Sigmund.


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