Of all European powers, Germany, from its beginning in 1871 as a nation-state, has been alone in enjoying warm feelings among Iranians. That was partly due to the fact that Iran and the newly created Germany shared common enemies, notably Russia and England.
However, the fact that, from the beginning of the relationship, Germany puts its focus on economic and scientific relations also persuaded many Iranians that their new friends in Europe wished to help Iran join the modern world.
During the Second World War, Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi refused to join the Anglo-Russian alliance against Nazi Germany and paid a heavy price when the Allies invaded the country and forced its monarch into exile.
After the war, Federal Germany emerged as Iran’s principal friend in Europe. Iran became a “must” destination for Federal Germany’s Chancellors. By 1979 as the Islamic Revolution reached its crescendo Federal Germany was Iran’s number-one trading partner.
Even today under the mullahs, Germany is regarded if not as an ally at least as a partner with no hidden agenda.
So, it was no surprise that a comment the other day by Heiko Maas, the new Foreign Minister in Angela Merkel’s coalition Cabinet, was seized upon by President Hassan Rouhani and his team as a sign that their hope for a split between the US and European Union allies is about to be realized.
Writing in the German Handelsblatt newspaper, Maas called for the setting up of independent payment channels, largely as a way for European businesses to avoid US sanctions targeting firms -- whether inside or outside the US – that do business with Iran.
“US sanctions are back in force,” he wrote. “In this situation, it is of strategic importance that we clearly tell Washington: we want to work together. But we will not let you act over our heads."
Maas’s comment was subsequently brushed aside by Merkel who insisted that the EU must continue working with the US on the Iran imbroglio.
Maas himself walked the cat back a few days later.
"I don't see any simple solution to shield companies from all the risks of American sanctions," he told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
However, state-controlled media in Tehran had had enough time to depict a fantasy world in which the EU, alongside Russia and China and maybe even Turkey and Malaysia, would line up behind the Islamic Republic to defy the American “Great Satan.”
Maas helped the most hard-line faction in Tehran, the faction that claims the Islamic Republic need make no concessions to anyone as the major powers are unable to adopt a unified position on any major issue.
A regional politician, Maas has little experience in international affairs. It is, therefore, no surprise that he should tackle the “Iran problem” with some naiveté. Also, a dose of anti-Americanism is always welcome in European leftist circles while Trump bashing has developed into an international pastime.
Maas isn’t the first Western politician to fail to understand that the problem with the Islamic Republic is that it is a regime, or a system if you prefer, that cannot but have problems with everybody else because it has a problem with itself.
That problem is this: It claims to be building what “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has labelled “The New Islamic Civilization” according to which the Islamic Republic, being the only legitimate government in the world, is not bound by any aspect of international law which is the work of “Zionists and Crusaders.”
Within that doctrine, the Islamic Republic does as it pleases until it hits something hard. In that case it stops temporarily, waiting for the hardship to end. In theological terms it is called “relief after constraint.” (In Arabic: faraj ba’ad al-shiddah).
Earlier this month, Khamenei spelled out that doctrine in its starkest way. Talking about expected new sanctions by the Trump administration, he told a gathering of senior political and military officials in Tehran that there was no need to do anything different.
“There will be neither war nor diplomacy,” he said, adding that henceforth there should be no talks with the United States. To give his statement more force he said he was renewing a ban imposed by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
Khamenei’s implicit assumption was that the Islamic Republic need not show any flexibility as its adversaries are bound to back down sooner or later. Statements such as the one initially made by Maas lend some credence to that dangerous assumption.
Normally, there are only two ways in which international problems are resolved: diplomacy or war.
By apparently renouncing both, Khamenei hopes to trod a third way: practicing ersatz diplomacy while waging real but covert war.
There are many examples of the ersatz diplomacy practiced by the mullahs.
In 1981 the mullahs signed the Algiers Accord with President Jimmy Carter, promising not to seize any more American hostages. They never honored that promise and since then hardly a day has passed without them holding some American hostages.
In 2015 they made a song and dance about the “nuke deal” concocted by President Barack Obama. But they refused to sign anything and prevented the “deal” from securing a legal mooring.
More recently, President Rouhani signed the so-called Caspian Sea Convention, a document that some in his entourage claim he had not even read in detail. But the so-called convention, a sop to its author, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has already been put on the backburner.
A meeting of parliament’s National Security Committee scheduled to examine the text has been postponed sine die. Also, Iran has written to the Kazakh government, designated as the “trustee of the convention”, to demand more talks on unspecified “aspects not covered” by the Aktau document.
Maas may not know it. But Iran’s problem is that it believes the whole world must be run in accordance with the rules set by the Islamic Republic, not the other way.
Unless the Tehran leadership changes its mind-set, or unless the leadership is changed, no one can protect Iran against its own follies- no one, not even Maas, the luminary from Saarland.
This article was originally published by Asharq Al-Awsat.