Analysis: Why is the Bundestag courting Iran?

German-Israeli relations are strained as MKs discover the depth of German-Iranian ties during a visit to Berlin last week.

The German Bundestag in Berlin 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
The German Bundestag in Berlin 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)
BERLIN – German-Israeli relations were strained last week because a delegation of Israeli lawmakers headed by MK Shaul Mofaz discovered during their visit to Berlin that the German counterparts were hosting a parallel meeting with members of Iran’s parliament (Majlis) in the Bundestag.
The Israeli delegation, from the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, issued a strongly worded letter to the Merkel administration, which dramatically sharpened the focus on Germany’s failure to end its intense parliamentary ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and placed new question marks over Germany’s commitment to the so-called “special relationship” between Berlin and Jerusalem.
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According to the MKs’ letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the Bundestag’s speaker and the chairman of the Bundestag Defense Committee, “The Iranian Majlis is a façade of a parliament that covers a murderous regime that oppresses its people and tortures young students and protesters. They support and export terror, aid Assad’s regime in repressing protests against him, deny the Holocaust – all while manufacturing nuclear weapons and missiles in order to commit genocide against the Jews and erase our only state from the map. We cannot stand by while German representatives hold a dialogue with a regime that calls for genocide.”
The diplomatic collision between Israel and Germany prompted the head of Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, Ruprecht Polenz, to quickly issue a statement on Friday defending his decision to host members of the Majlis.
“Sanctions do not rule out talks” with Iran’s government,” the 65-year-old Polenz, from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wrote.
He continued, however, that the members of Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee “largely agree with our Israeli colleagues in the critical assessment of political relations in Iran and the policies of Iran’s government under President Ahmadinejad.”
Polenz added that the “intensity” of talks between Germany’s parliament and the Majlis has been reduced but that he does not see a “contradiction” between sanctions and discussions. Polenz further justified the talks with members of the Majlis by saying the Bundestag wished to address Ahmadinejad’s recent verbal attacks against Israel and human rights violations in Iran.
Yet Polenz’s remarks on Friday about the Bundestag’s concern about Iran’s human rights record and Tehran’s jingoistic policies toward Israel also airbrushed Germany’s pro-Iran trade and diplomatic policies out of the picture. Germany remains Iran’s largest European Union trade partner. Despite new EU sanction put in place last year, German exports to the Islamic Republic increased by 2.6 percent in 2010 from a year earlier, reaching a total of 3.8 billion euros.
Polenz made no push, as head of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee since 2005, to clamp down on robust German- Iranian trade relations with unilateral German sanctions replicating the American congressional model.
Polenz’s defense on Friday of the Majlis members’ visit should also be accompanied by a healthy dose of skepticism.
Last October, Bundestag deputy Peter Gauweiler, from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU and chairman of the legislature’s Subcommittee on Foreign Cultural and Educational Policies, led a group of German lawmakers who met with Ali Larijani, the head of Iran’s parliament, in Iran. That’s the same Larijani who at the 2009 Munich security conference caused an uproar when he said his country has “different perspectives on the Holocaust.”
The group of German legislators, including deputies from the Greens, Social Democrats, CDU and the Left Party, also met during the October 2010 trip to the Islamic Republic with Ali Larijani’s brother Mohammad Javad Larijani, who heads the human rights council in the Iranian judiciary.
Mohammad Larijani in 2008 – during a German Foreign Ministry-sponsored event close to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial – denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction. The Bundestag members last year chose not to publicly criticize the Holocaust denial and the genocidal statements of the Larijani brothers. A month after the Gauweiler delegation visited Iran, Elke Hoff, a lawmaker from Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s Free Democratic Party, met “senior Iranian officials” during a trip to the Islamic Republic.
Hoff subsequently refused to answer press queries at the time about her trip to Iran. She is a member of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee and its Subcommittee on Disarmament, Arms Control and Non- Proliferation. She is also member of the German-Iranian parliamentary group and serves on the board of the German Near and Middle East Association, a pro-Iranian business trade organization. The association’s honorary chairman is former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who met President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran to promote German- Iranian trade in 2009.
What perhaps made the recent diplomatic row over Germany hosting Iran’s Majlis into a crisis for the Israeli-German “special relationship” was that MKs, particularly Mofaz, directly experienced a strange fusion of the Bundestag with members of the Majlis. Mofaz, who left Iran at age nine for Israel, is known for a hawkish posture toward Iran’s anti-Israel policies and its nuclear weapons program.
The long-standing relations between the Majlis and the Bundestag have been reported on, largely in the Israeli and the US press, but first-hand experience last week seems to have brought the depth and the intensity of German-Iranian relations to the fore for Israel’s lawmakers.