Rising Tensions: Trump’s Iran Escalation Poses a Threat for Germany

The U.S. under Donald Trump is exacerbating tensions with Iran, leading many to fear war may be just around the corner. Any military conflict would have dire consequences for Europe, but the Americans remain undeterred. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

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When German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas entered the meeting room of the center-left Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) parliamentary group in the German parliament building in Berlin on Tuesday afternoon, he was met with expectant eyes. The news had just emerged that Maas had received a call from United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A sparsely worded press release from the German Foreign Ministey noted that the secretary of state had expressed his “regret” that he needed to cancel his trip to Berlin at the last minute.

Foreign policy is a symbolic business. Who visits whom when, who makes whom wait for how long — this all has significance in diplomacy. Even if the German government went to great effort not to seem irritated, Pompeo’s cancellation is yet a further sign of just how fragile the relationship between Berlin and Washington is at the moment.

Other SPD lawmakers would also have liked to find out more about the background behind the cancellation, given that it came at a delicate moment. The news out of the Middle East this week has been alarming. An American aircraft carrier was on its way to the Persian Gulf, and every indication suggested that Pompeo’s aircraft was also heading somewhere in the crisis region.

But Foreign Minister Maas said nothing. Instead, he left the meeting after half an hour. To the SPD lawmakers, the minister’s silence seemed like a symbol of the helplessness and the lack of direction in German foreign policy.

Unpredictable Consequences

There was, after all, plenty for him to explain. The U.S. secretary of state was on his way to Baghdad with the goal of bringing the Iraqi regime on board with the Washington’s strategy against Iran. The Americans are currently escalating the conflict with Tehran — with unpredictable consequences for their allies in Europe. In Berlin political circles, worries are growing about the potential threat of war.

Experienced diplomats are reminded of the period in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. And sources within the German government believe the threat of war is greater than it has been at any point in recent decades.

“We’re seeing increasing confrontation everywhere in the region,” said Volker Perthes, the head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He believes there’s “a dangerous concurrence of conflicts and too many actors who are willing to take risks and are not speaking with each other.”

A Powder Keg

Jürgen Tritten, a veteran member of the German parliament with the Green Party who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he sees a “huge danger of escalation” in the region. “The U.S. appears to be looking for a pretext to escalate the conflict with Iran,” he argued. “The claim that Iran is planning an attack against U.S. troops in Iraq smacks of a Tonkin incident,” he added, referring to a minor confrontation that became the pretext under which the U.S. intensified its role in the Vietnam War.

Washington is trying to bring Iran to its knees using a mixture of economic warfare and military threats. And whether or not the U.S. is pursuing a goal of regime change seems almost beside the point. Because anyone who puts a fuse into a powder keg and says, “Let’s just see what happens,” is already risking a war.

The U.S. has already slapped tough sanctions on the regime in Tehran, and it is demonstratively ramping up militarily in the Persian Gulf. After intelligence services warned of potential Iranian attacks against U.S. soldiers, Trump deployed a battle group led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as well as a bomber squadron toward Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.

In response, Iranian revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, has reportedly placed the Iranian forces on higher alert. In a speech on May 1, he described Washington’s actions as “total war.” At no point since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 has the threat of war been greater.

The U.S.’ actions are doubly dangerous. The tensions with Iran could, intentionally or not, expand into a military conflict. And it wouldn’t be any less dangerous if the hawks in Washington succeeded in destabilizing Iran and the country fell into civil war. Iran has over 80 million inhabitants, a population about four times the size of Syria’s before the civil war.

It’s little surprise, then, that Trump’s confrontational Middle Eastern policy has exacerbated the tensions between the U.S. and its European allies, because, unlike the situation in Venezuela, Europe would be directly affected. The continent’s very security is at stake.

The consequences of a war would primarily affect Europe. Sources within the German government claim that the Americans have been told repeatedly that their policies pose a much greater danger to Europe than the U.S. But those efforts have been in vain.

Europeans Blame the U.S.

The Americans believe the Europeans, especially the Germans, have been an impediment to their strategy of maximum pressure. Trump’s government doesn’t see Merkel’s government as an ally, but rather as an obstructionist that too often insists on dialogue in the Middle East, has too close a relationship to Tehran and undermines the sanctions and torpedoes Washington’s policies against Iran.

A war in the Middle East may not be on Trump’s agenda. During his campaign, he promised that under his leadership, the U.S. would end the “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos” and thus stop “racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved in.” But the president and John Bolton, his national security adviser, both agree that the threats against Iran should intensified.

Meanwhile, the Europeans blame Washington for the escalation in the Middle East. “Washington is exacerbating regional tensions with its policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran,” said Niels Annen, a high-ranking official at the German Foreign Ministry. “Trump’s Middle East policy is highly dangerous,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. “Trump is breaking international agreements with Iran. And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. president is effectively making a two-state solution impossible.”

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By Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Christoph Scheuermann, Fidelius Schmid and Christoph Schult

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