Germany must change for EU sanctions on Iran to have bite

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Foreign ministers of European Union member states are meeting in Brussels on Monday to finalize new sanctions against Iran.

As Iran’s second-largest trading partner, Germany has a responsibility — and great leverage over Iran. Germany should lead the way, as an issue of conscience, in making sure these sanctions have teeth — and that the Islamic Republic feels their bite.

Iran: A July 26 Op-Ed article about Germany and Iran incorrectly stated that Siemens AG lost a rail-car deal last year in Los Angeles. The contract was not up for bid. —

“Germany, with its anti-Semitic past, is now the biggest supporter in Europe of this anti-Semitic regime — it’s a scandal,” said Ulrike Becker, a founding member of Stop the Bomb, a human rights organization of German and Austrian intellectuals and activists dedicated to preventing the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons.

In June, the European Union finally got around to passing sanctions prohibiting its member nations from investing directly in Iran’s oil and gas sectors. But the EU sanctions were “weak, much weaker than American sanctions,” Becker told me in an interview. One reason for that, she believes, is Germany’s opposition to isolating its trading partner.

Becker cites last month’s attempt by the German delegation at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg to remove sanctions on Iran’s gas sector, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s opposition to British efforts to penalize the mullahs following the regime’s bloody suppression of Iran’s nonviolent opposition movement and detention of British Embassy staff last summer.

“Because of the engagement policy over the past two years, there was no pressure on Iran, so precious time was lost,” Becker says. “Now the time for small steps is past; what we need now are crippling sanctions.”

Monday’s meeting also concerns Iran’s banking sector. Members of Stop the Bomb say they have received information that the German delegation plans to obstruct efforts to isolate Iran’s banks.

It is no mystery why Germany would wish to keep Iran’s banks going strong: They provide big business for Germany. A study recently released by former U.S. Treasury Department analyst Avi Jorisch of Iran’s banking sector found that five German banks continue to do business with Iranian groups banned by U.N. Security Council sanctions. And as of June 30, four major Iranian banks, under either U.N. Security Council or U.S. Treasury sanctions, are still active in Germany.

Two years ago, Merkel spoke to the Israeli Knesset about the vital importance of supporting Israel. Let her show moral leadership and do more than scold German companies for making huge profits by dealing with the Iranian regime.

If the world holds the German government, and German business, accountable, Becker believes they will respond in a positive way.

In January 2009, Becker and other members of Stop the Bomb who had bought shares in public German and Austrian companies, including Siemens AG, spoke at a Siemens board meeting about the need to isolate the Iranian regime. “We asked them, ‘Do you really want to lose trade relations with the United States to support a regime that’s torturing its own people and threatening Israel?’ ” Becker recalls.

In January, following reports that Iranian activists were leading a boycott of the joint venture Nokia Siemens Networks for selling technology to the mullahs (enabling them to clamp down on the Iranian opposition movement’s communications), Nokia Siemens announced it would stop doing business with Iran. Siemens also lost a $300-million rail-car deal last year in Los Angeles, where Jewish American activists had raised awareness about Siemens’ dealings with the mullahs. The collective pressure of Persian, Jewish American and German activism may have coalesced to bring about the successful result.

German activists like Becker and Michael Spaney, director of Stop the Bomb in Germany, say if there is any chance for sanctions to work, it lies with Germany. “Germany’s leading role in trading with Iran and its years of appeasement have made the Iranian regime an ever-growing danger,” Spaney says. “If sanctions do not succeed in preventing Iran’s nuclear bomb, then it will be to a large extent the fault of Germany.”

Following World War II, the Allies allowed many German companies to remain in business. Though heavy industry factories that could be used to mount a war effort were dismantled, Allied leaders made the call that allowing many corporations, including many German banks, to continue to function was practical and, some argued, ethically justified, as being consistent with the policy of helping a vanquished enemy to rebuild with dignity — and contrition.

It’s time for Germany’s government and business community to demonstrate that this magnanimous trust was not misplaced.

Heather Robinson, a New York-based independent journalist, also blogs for the Huffington Post and at