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Time for Germany to Step Up

Yesterday’s news that the U.S. stopped an Iranian plan to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington naturally inspired immediate debate over how the White House should respond. Tougher economic sanctions–or at least stricter enforcement of existing sanctions–seemed to be an obvious element of American action.

But that discussion shows just how difficult the sanctions process–which does seem to have accomplished some of its aims–has been diplomatically. You would think authoritarian regimes in the East are the main impediments to reining in Iran’s nuclear program, as they are on Syria. But just two days prior to yesterday’s revelation, Benjamin Weinthal reported that Germany remains the West’s primary obstacle:

Despite new EU sanctions, German exports to the Islamic Republic increased by 2.6 percent between 2009 and 2010, reaching a total of 3.8 billion euros, according to new trade data the Post obtained last week from the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden.

German exports to Iran dropped from approximately 2.22b. euros in the first half of 2010 to 1.76b. euros in the first half of 2011, but German imports of Iranian goods increased from 382 million euros to 453m. euros in the same period. The Federal Republic’s consumption of Iranian gas and oil rose during the first six months of 2011 to 280m. euros, from 197m. euros in the first half of 2010.

When I reported on this issue in the spring, German pro-Israel groups were complaining to me they could not get Angela Merkel’s government to take real action against the European Iranian Bank of Commerce in Hamburg, through which countries (such as India) were funneling payments to Iran for petroleum exports. German officials finally agreed to step in, but there was a sense among Germans getting such action from the government was a slow, frustrating process. And they were right.

But on some level, this isn’t difficult to understand. The New York Times revealed last year that our own federal government has been skirting the sanctions. Why should European leaders follow our sanctions if we won’t? Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, told me at the time the president can get sanctions bills–such as those sponsored by Sherman–watered down in the Senate anyway before they pass.

Sherman told me at the time: “We could be effective against Iran–so effective as to force them to abandon their nuclear program. In order to do that, we would have to take action that would drive oil companies and Wal-Mart and foreign governments a little bonkers. And we’re not even willing to take on the epicureans and tell them they have to make do with Russian caviar.”

The Iranian plot certainly demands a response. Perhaps it will give us leverage with Germany–leverage we shouldn’t need in the first place, but which we should now have.



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