“The Iraqi Government has the last word”
Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Deutschlandfunk about the current situation following the announcement by the Iraqi Parliament to expel all foreign troops from the Country.
Mr Maas, does the decision by the Iraqi Parliament now also spell the end of the fight against IS by foreign troops in Iraq?
We’ll have to discuss this now with the acting Iraqi Government. Nobody wants there to be military engagement in Iraq against the will of the Parliament and Government, of course. This is why this must now be discussed. The Iraqi Government has the last word on this.
In any case, we take this parliamentary decision very seriously. However, we’re also very concerned that without the commitment of the international community – after all, dozens of countries are involved in the fight against IS – Iraq will become even more unstable than it already is. We must now discuss this matter with those in positions of responsibility in Iraq. At the end of the day, however, we will accept any decision that is reached there.
US President Trump is already threatening the Government in Baghdad with massive sanctions if US troops are made to withdraw from the country. Is this an appropriate response from Washington?
I don’t think it’s very helpful at the present time. Following the decision taken by the Iraqi Parliament, we must now actively promote the willingness of the international community to continue to support Iraq.
We have invested a great deal, not only militarily, but also in stabilisation support to rebuild this country, to create infrastructure. This is at risk of being forfeited if the situation continues to develop in this way. I believe that Iraq cannot be convinced with threats, but with arguments, of which there are many. But Iraq itself has the last word, of course.
How far do you think Donald Trump or the Government in Washington, DC will go to put pressure on Baghdad?
We’ll see what happens. I believe that the measures taken by the US in recent days show a high degree of determination. Nevertheless, I believe that what the French President, the UK Prime Minister and the Federal Chancellor said yesterday, that we must bring our influence to bear on all sides to ensure that Iraq does not become the theatre of a war between the US and Iran, is right.
This means that the Europeans have open and functioning channels of communication on both sides, which are currently being used, and we will do our part to prevent a proxy war in Iraq waged by other countries.
Have you told your interlocutors in Washington that you don’t find the responses from Washington helpful?
I have spoken to my counterpart Mike Pompeo on the telephone. He didn’t just talk to me on the phone, but also to his French and UK counterparts, for example. As we know from his comments, he doesn’t seem to have been very pleased that we didn’t agree one hundred percent with the approach taken by the US.
Nevertheless, I believe it’s important that Europeans are united on this issue, because only then can Europe play any role at all in this debate. And since our own security interests are also affected in Iraq in the fight against international terrorism, against IS, on a massive scale, we have a responsibility here, and that’s what we’re currently trying to achieve in many talks with our counterparts from Washington, DC and also in Tehran, with the Gulf states, which are all very concerned about this development.
We’re trying to take this into account, and I also think it’s necessary, for example, that the EU Foreign Ministers meet now at short notice in order to coordinate their response and adopt a European position.
Why has this taken so long?
You can’t say that this has taken particularly long. There was a joint statement by Germany, France and the UK yesterday. The EU is also on board here. The situation is changing every day. We will therefore have to assess these developments on a daily basis.
It would, however, be important to meet in a wider context. In addition, I believe it’s necessary, following the Iraqi Parliament’s decision, for the Global Coalition against Daesh, which includes many countries from all over the world, to meet now to discuss the situation further.
An extraordinary meeting of the NATO North Atlantic Council is taking place today. We must coordinate our response here, and we must also take a decision on how to deal with the decision by the Iraqi Parliament. We will see what position the Iraqi Government ultimately takes on this issue.
Is it clear, Mr Maas, that without US troops no German Bundeswehr soldiers will remain in Iraq either?
That will certainly be very difficult, because the US has taken on a large number of military functions there that cannot be assumed by others overnight. At the end of the day, however, the Iraqi Parliament has decided that all foreign armed forces should leave the country.
We’ll now have to see how the Iraqi Government implements this resolution, and only then will we know what the basis is for further US involvement, and also for Europe’s involvement in particular. That’s why we need to talk about this within the EU as soon as possible.
Bundeswehr soldiers in Iraq are not part of the NATO training mission because of concerns on the part of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany). The SPD wanted to settle this matter bilaterally with Baghdad, which has come in for a great deal of criticism. At the moment, foreign troops in Iraq are only focusing on protecting themselves. Their operation or mission has otherwise been suspended. Do Bundeswehr soldiers enjoy less protection because they are not part of the NATO mission?
No, that’s definitely not the case. We’ve taken every precaution to guarantee the security of the German soldiers stationed in Iraq, as well as those who are involved in the anti-IS mission in neighbouring countries, such as those conducting reconnaissance flights or providing refuelling aircraft.
Their mission, including the training mission, isn’t being carried out, and the fight against IS has been suspended for the time being until the situation on the ground is clarified, also politically. But, of course, the security of our soldiers is our top priority, and we’re assessing this on a daily basis and are able at all times to draw the necessary conclusions.
But we heard again at the weekend about missiles being fired at a US base in Iraq. We’ve seen the pictures of hate-filled demonstrators following the assassination of the Iranian commander. Hatred against the US can easily spill over to the Allies. Shouldn’t the German soldiers be withdrawn immediately from this dangerous situation, as is also being called for by the opposition in Berlin?
I think it’s difficult if you do this ad hoc, because at the end of the day we’re not alone in Iraq. If everyone now decides by themselves what to do with their soldiers, there’ll be a great deal of uncertainty, also for others.
But Germany is nevertheless responsible for its own soldiers in the first instance.
Exactly. That’s what we’re doing and what we’re assessing, and we take the view, as is also the case with other countries, that security is guaranteed, that we must now establish with the Iraqi Government how the fight against IS is to continue at all.
However, it’s important that we do this in cooperation with our international partners. We’re working together at the end of the day. This means that some perform one function and others a different one. It’s a coordinated system. This is why it’s so important that the NATO Council is meeting today and that the Global Coalition against Daesh is being convened in order to discuss this. If everyone now does what they personally think is right, it will inevitably no longer be possible to uphold this mandate or commitment. That’s why it’s important for us to coordinate everything that we do now at the international level. This is the only responsible path of action.
Iran has announced that it will dissociate itself further from the nuclear agreement. Does this spell the end of the agreement?
This is, firstly, a decision that makes the situation, which is difficult anyway, much more complicated because nobody wants Iran to get its hands on nuclear weapons. What Iran has now announced is no longer in line with the agreement. That’s why we’ll be meeting with France and the UK today to decide, together, how to respond to this announcement by the end of this week. This is certainly not something that we can simply accept without a response.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that we will look at how such cases should be clarified and which procedures can be triggered – the agreement offers certain possibilities in this regard. We’ll discuss this together. We will, as we have always done in the past, discuss this with the International Atomic Energy Agency and request their assessment once again. On this basis, once we have gathered together the facts, there will be a coordinated response, which Germany, France and the UK will discuss in the coming hours and days.
What’s the most likely scenario? Is it possible that the Europeans will withdraw from the agreement?
We’ll be sure to talk to Iran once again. However, what has been announced isn’t in line with the nuclear agreement. And when these talks have been conducted, we’ll have to reach a decision on this. This hasn’t become any easier, and this may also be the beginning of the end of this agreement, which would be a great loss.
That’s why we will now weigh this up again very, very responsibly, also in the current situation, in which all of us are endeavouring to prevent further escalation. But we will not simply be able to shrug off what Iran has now announced. We want to coordinate our response to this at the international level, however.
Just briefly to finish with, you said just now that there was a certain amount of bewilderment in Washington with respect to Europe’s response in recent days, and many people are probably also wondering which side the Europeans are actually on as those who still view Tehran as a negotiating partner, with respect to this nuclear agreement, for example.
We’re on the side that always wants to give diplomacy a chance.
And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the side taken by the US?
When I consider what has happened in the last few days after Soleimani was killed, you inevitably have to ask whether these are developments that were intended. I don’t believe that this is the case. That is why we have to deal with this now, and we will do our part, as Europe, to ensure that every opportunity is taken to give diplomacy another chance. The last thing that any of us would want – that’s also in Europe’s profound security interest – is a conflagration in the Near and Middle East, as this will significantly alter the security situation in Europe, and not for the better.
Interview conducted by Christiane Kaess