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Germany, European Union Display Increasing Assertiveness Regarding Iran

Last month, the German government summoned the Iranian ambassador to that country, in order to condemn past instances of Iranian agents being caught spying, especially on persons with ties to the state of Israel. As Reuters reported, this discussion took place after the sentencing of Mustufa Haidar Syed-Naqfi, a Pakistani man who was convicted of gathering information for Tehran.

The German Foreign Ministry explained to the Iranian ambassador that such activities constitute “an egregious violation of German law,” which “would not be tolerated.” The strength of this statement implies that the Syed-Naqfi case was not an isolated incident. And indeed, Western governments have prepared various documents over the years calling attention to the persistence of activities by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence that are aimed at exerting influence over international media or utilizing European resources to advance Iranian interests.

The Tower called attention, for instance, to a German intelligence report that indicated agents of the Islamic Republic had made at least 32 attempts to procure illicit technologies on German soil in the year following the conclusion of nuclear negotiations in 2015. The equipment in question has defined applications to the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and the procurement have been duly presented as evidence of Iranian efforts to violation the nuclear deal agreement.

Germany’s 2016 intelligence report was also cited by the National Review in an editorial response to last week’s decision by US President Donald Trump to preserve the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for the time being through the renewal of sanctions waivers that first went into effect at the start of 2016. Although the article expressed disappointment with the JCPOA’s short-term survival, it emphasized Trump’s statement that these would be the last such waivers until such time as perceived flaws in the agreement are fixed by the US Congress and European partners.

The National Review credited Germany with identifying what it called credible reports of Iranian cheating, suggesting that such reports would help to secure European buy-in on a plan to tighten restrictions on the Islamic Republic and shore up the JCPOA. The article also highlighted Iran’s apparent use of sanctions relief to increase funding of terrorism – a trend that may also help to motivate European governments to move closer to the Trump administration’s hardline on Iran policy.

The article specifically noted that funding for Iran’s Lebanese terrorist proxy Hezbollah had quadrupled to 830 million dollars in 2017. This could have particular consequences for Germany because, as The Tower pointed out, Hezbollah’s political wing operates openly in Germany despite being officially designated as a terrorist organization by other Western governments.

Critics of the Islamic Republic are no doubt hopeful that Germany will take a firmer stance on the local influence of Iran and its proxies in the wake of recent prosecutions and raids. Along those lines, the German representative office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a statement in response to the arrest notices for the 10 Quds Force operatives. The statement described the Iranian embassy as “a center for expanding terrorism and fundamentalism” and urged its closure, along with the expulsion of all the Iranian regime’s “agents and spies”.

This, of course, would constitute a dramatic shift in Germany’s Iran policy. But there are other measures that the government might take over the short term, including the review of its recent moves toward greater economic cooperation with Iran in the wake of the nuclear negotiations. Germany was a signatory of the resulting agreement, alongside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and as such it was among the first to seek economic benefit from the JCPOA.

However, the question of European investment in Iran has been a complicated one, partly because of the persistent danger of renewed American sanctions and partly because of the continuation of Iranian misbehavior in areas of terrorist sponsorship, human rights, and activities that arguably test the limits of the nuclear deal.

The American aspect of those complications has certainly intensified throughout the year that President Trump has been in office, and Handelsblatt indicated on Wednesday that German companies were more openly shunning prospective investments in the Islamic Republic following the White House’s latest warning about the future of the JCPOA. The report noted that many such companies are still showing superficial signs of imminent reentry into the Iranian market, but are recognizably holding back from the actual resumption of business relations.

Similar trends have been noted among other would-be European investors, and this is widely regarded as the result of pressure from Americans who remain committed to a hardline approach to the Islamic Republic. However, there have also been signs that the Europeans, while still vigorously defending the JCPOA, are also coming more closely into alignment with the Trump administration’s view on the need for further measures that restrain Tehran’s regional and global activities.

Germany’s pursuit of Quds Force operatives is arguably one example of trend, as well as being a possible motivator for a further shift in that direction. Additionally, on Tuesday the Financial Times reported that the European Union as a whole was increasing its pressure on Iran over ballistic missile activities. The report quoted one official as saying that action has already been taken to begin addressing a number of the White House’s concerns. These measures are expected to be discussed in more detail when European foreign ministers hold dialogue with Tehran in the near future.

Many critics of recent Western policies toward Iran are noticeably concerned that this assertive shift is not happening quickly enough. The National Review evoked this view when it lamented the survival of the JCPOA past the end of last week. But LobeLog published an alternative analysis on Tuesday which suggested that the White House’s creation of uncertainty regarding the JCPOA has the same adverse effect on Iran as actually cancelling it.

This course of action also diminishes the threat that that cancelation would pose to American-European relations, and both LobeLog and the National Review seem to agree that this is part of Trump’s intention. By delaying the prospective cancellation or alteration of the nuclear deal, the White House is giving itself time to build consensus with European governments that appear increasingly open to arguments in favor of more open confrontation of the Islamic Republic.