_ Hans-Joachim Spanger, Head of Research Department, Leibniz Institute Peace Research Institute Frankfurt-am-Main, 17 May 2018.
Donald Trump’s reckless policy vis-à-vis Iran has substantially changed the originally not very promising agenda of the Putin-Merkel meeting in Sochi on May 18.
On 18 May Angela Merkel is paying a visit to Vladimir Putin, the first after her reelection and the formation of another “Grand” Coalition government in Germany. Originally there was not much of a promising agenda other than demonstrating that dialogue has not been totally replaced by deterrence in the professed German dual strategy vis-à-vis Russia. The Ukraine conflict is deadlocked because of Ukrainian stubbornness and Russian aloofness. The Syrian conundrum has Germany not exactly in the driving seat but rather on the sidelines (which are occasionally transgressed by Syrian refugees and Turkish arms requests). And Nord Stream 2, aka the future of gas transit through Ukraine, may require a safety valve in the face of stiff resistance from various quarters in the West but not necessarily a visit by the German chancellor.
Yet talking to each other is a value in itself on the backdrop of the Skripal affair and of CAATSA, the increasingly applied unilateral US sanctions regime against Russia and the accompanying hysteria in Washington. That is even more important as the new German foreign minister prides himself on departing from an (allegedly) holy Social Democratic landmark – the Ostpolitik, without offering anything tangible instead.
However, Donald Trump’s reckless policy vis-à-vis Iran has changed the agenda of the visit substantially. His unilateral departure from JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran nuclear deal, not only forces everybody else to foot the bill – politically as well as even more so economically. It also landed Russia and Germany on the same side of the new transatlantic divide. Germany and Russia share the same interest: to encourage Iran to stick to the agreement since otherwise the international community would be back to square one (with UN sanctions automatically reinstated and Iran fuel enrichment resumed). In other words, Trump would have achieved his goal of totally wrecking the agreement and driving everybody into the corner (not to speak of even more devastating fantasies in and around the White House). Fulfilling the other part of the deal, however, proves much more difficult as the muted reactions to the US threat of secondary sanctions indicate. Making sure that Iran is not cut off from international finance and that it can duly export its oil and gas, is the minimum requirement which calls for coordination and steadfastness by all the parties involved and in equal measure. For Germany in particular this implies venturing into unknown territory.
It is not quite clear whether the man in the White House realizes that he has embarked on gradually dismantling the transatlantic alliance (testimonies by a host of in- and outsiders in Washington suggest the opposite and those who succeeded the ones who recently left Bob Corker’s “adult day care” simply do not bother). Drawing the appropriate conclusions on the part of Berlin requires courage. But Mrs. Merkel is not known for moving fast or far. And Germany’s long cultivated trading-state role model calls for multilateral compromising and does not exactly encourage great power dealings. Hence here again it is up to France to lead the way.