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Drozdiak: German Chancellor Likely to Press Bush for Direct Talks with Iran

Interviewee: William Drozdiak, President, American Council on Germany
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 2, 2006

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William Drozdiak, president of the independent American Council on Germany, sees a "definite improvement" in U.S.-German relations since Angela Merkel became chancellor five months ago. Ahead of Merkel's second visit to Washington this year, Drozdiak says a key issue for Merkel and President George W. Bush is what to do about Iran's nuclear program.

Drozdiak, a former foreign editor for the Washington Post, says Germany is in a difficult position because sanctions would hurt its flourishing trade with Iran and compound concerns over rising oil prices. He doubts the United States can get German agreement on strong economic sanctions aimed at freezing Iran's uranium enrichment activities. Germany also shares a European desire for "the Americans [to] get more directly engaged in the negotiations" with Iran, says Drozdiak. But he does not believe Washington will accept the kind of sweeping talks advocated by the Europeans.

Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Bush in January, and now she's coming back for a rather brief visit; she'll be speaking to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on its hundredth anniversary. How have overall German-American relations been in the last five months? Have they improved, as people had predicted?

I think there's been a definite improvement, largely because of the rapport that's developed between Chancellor Merkel and President Bush. As you know, Bush had a very testy relationship with former Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder, and by the end of Schroeder's term they were not even on speaking terms. Now you have a chancellor whom the president admires, partly because she emerged from a communist society in eastern Germany to become the leader of one of our most important allies in Europe. He's impressed with her life story, and because she speaks flawless Russian. And because Germany is such a key partner in terms of business and trade with Russia, she has become something of an intermediary in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She met recently with Putin, didn't she?

Yes, they had a summit last week in Tomsk, in Siberia where they had two days of discussions. My understanding is that, while they celebrated a number of trade agreements that will bring a lot of business to Germany and increase Russia's role as a key supplier of gas and oil to western Europe, their discussions about Russia's desire to become a major power again were rather tense and fraught with difficulty. I think the big sticking point right now is what to do with Iran. Russia seems to be averse to moving ahead with heavy sanctions.

When you say Russia's desire to become a major power, obviously it is a major power. But do officials feel thwarted by the West right now?

Well, they're being challenged. I think it goes back to the decision by Putin to withhold gas supplies from the Ukraine, which also caused disruptions in other European countries. By making that decision, he threw into jeopardy Russia's reputation as a reliable energy supplier. As European countries like Germany are trying to reduce their dependency on Middle Eastern oil and gas, they turned to Russia, but now they're very concerned whether Russia, particularly the former KGB cohort in the Kremlin around Putin, [is] trying to use the leverage of their oil and gas supplies for political purposes in regaining greater power.

And Russia supplies what percentage of Germany's natural gas?

Right now it's between 40 and 50 percent, but by 2010 it will rise to at least 60 percent. So it's a major supplier, and particularly as Germany closes down nuclear power plants as a legacy of the previous Green influence in Schroeder's government, and also tries to cut down on coal and oil, natural gas is emerging as their key energy source.

Now as you said, the major issue right now is what to do about Iran. The matter is before the Security Council now and the United States seems to be pressing for tougher measures. The Russians and the Chinese say they are reluctant to have any sanctions whatsoever. I don't know where the Germans stand on this. They have a lot of business with Iran. They aren't a member of the Security Council, but they're a member of the tripartite European negotiating team, so they obviously have influence.

Right, Germany has been brought along with the permanent five in the Security Council because they were, along with Britain and France, leading the discussions with Iran, trying to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment for fear that this would lead Iran to possess nuclear weapons. The American approach has been, "let's work with the Europeans because we want to have as strong and unified a stance as possible, to prevent the Iranians from playing one side off against the other." But it's been difficult, as you say, to get the Russians and Chinese to go along with this, because, as relatively autocratic powers, they don't believe in sanctions.

They think that sanctions are almost an intrusion into internal affairs. Germany is caught in a difficult position, because if any kind of economic sanctions are imposed, Germany will be hurt in terms of business and trade. They have quite a flourishing trade with Iran. Secondly, they fear that the only sanctions which would count would be some kind of blockade or prevention of Iran from exporting its oil. And they're already suffering with oil at $75 a barrel. They fear that their nascent economic recovery would be snuffed out if oil goes much higher, and that's what they fear will happen if some kind of sanctions are imposed on Iranian oil exports.

I don't think anyone's talking about sanctions on Iranian oil, though. In fact, the fear here is that Iran, in retaliation, might cut back on oil.

Well, also, there is talk of a ban on oil equipment or digging technology to Iran.

Would the French and British have any different position on this? Or are they also reluctant to order strong sanctions?

Well, I think they want to have a serious discussion, and certainly the chancellor will have this discussion with the president about what would be the most effective sanctions to employ here. What the Germans, and for that matter, the French and the British, have been pushing, is that you will only get some kind of resolution if the Americans get more directly engaged in the negotiations. And this is what the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was urging when he came to Washington and met with Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice a few weeks ago, and the chancellor will push this line as well. They feel that the only way of getting the Iranians finally to comply with international demands is to get the Americans more directly engaged. And frankly I don't see the administration being all that enthusiastic about that.

You mean Germany wants the United States to join the three-party talks, or even negotiate alone with Iran?

Yes, even, if possible, to negotiate separately, on a separate track. The Germans were encouraged by the announcement that the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad would have talks with the Iranians about the security situation in Iraq, and they hoped that this would open the door to wider talks, perhaps about some kind of non-aggression arrangement that would reassure the Iranians and give them a face-saving way out of their current predicament, and that they would be able to then reassure the rest of the world that they were not going after nuclear weapons.

So what you're telling me is that it's going to be very tough for the U.S. to get any kind of sanctions through the Security Council at this time. In fact I've heard talk that there won't be any sanctions, just another resolution.

I think that's right, I don't think there's going to be any serious effort. There may just be token sanctions. And frankly, that's not going to have much effect. Let's say, if you imposed a travel ban on the leadership there. Well, the Iranian leaders don't really travel all that much to the West. Although it is curious that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed the desire to attend the World Cup of soccer, which is taking place in Germany in June. So that might be some degree of punishment for him.

Does Iran have a team in the World Cup?

Yes. And you know, soccer has become a very popular sport, and they have a pretty good team.

Back to Merkel. She's also speaking to the American Jewish Committee?

Right. She'll give a speech on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the American Jewish Committee. She's also coming to New York, and we at the American Council on Germany have arranged for her to have something of a brainstorming summit with American and German CEOs about the transatlantic economy. She will also give a speech that we will be hosting at the Hotel Pierre. So this, her trip to New York, will be primarily to strengthen economic relationships, perhaps attract more investments in Germany. And I think her time in Washington will be spent meeting with the president on Iran, and also to give a speech on where Germany is going in the world these days.

It is interesting that she's speaking to this umbrella group. Have German leaders spoken in the past to such Jewish groups?

Oh yes, I think German-Jewish relations are an important part of Germany's foreign policy. And I think it's been a big success for Germany, being, I think, after the United States, the closest friend of Israel.

I think when Ahmadinejad was lambasting Israel and raised doubts over whether there was a holocaust, Germany was most insulted.

That's right. Germans have been very quick to condemn Ahmadinejad's declarations about eradicating Israel and denying the Holocaust, and I think they realize that, given their tragic history with the Holocaust, that they need, above anybody else, to stand up and condemn such talk.

How do Germans feel about the situation in France, the last couple months, with the street demonstrations over the labor law, and the general weakening of the whole Chirac government, and the weakening, it seems, of [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair's government over scandals? Does this mean Germany is emerging, helter-skelter, as the leading force in Europe?

Well, the campaign for greater European unity has always been driven by a close relationship between France and Germany. Now, given the problems with the government in France, and the fact that there will be a presidential election a year from now, the fear is that there will be paralysis setting into the European Union. Given the weakness of Chirac, the weakening position of Tony Blair, and the unstable new government in Italy, Chancellor Merkel has emerged, almost by default, as one of the—probably the—strongest leader in Europe today. So this is why, the administration, which has been seeking in the second term to reach out to the allies, now sees her as their strongest intermediary in Europe, and that's why they've been using Germany as sort of the key partner in discussions with Russia, and also with Iran.

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