Germany Between Russia and Iran

Perhaps no two countries demonstrate the challenges for Germany’s trajectory in the decade to come as Russia and Iran. Both dominate their regions, will number among the top twenty economies in the world in 2030, and represent areas of dissonance between Berlin and Washington. How to think about relations with Russia and Iran in an era of multipolarity?

Russia: Against Kleptocracy

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015, commentators have spoken of a “new Cold War” between Russia and the West. Such parallels are exaggerated, not least because Russia today does not challenge global capitalism but is embedded in it. The Panama Papers have made clear that Russia’s kleptocracy has less to do with national character than the international financial infrastructure of shell companies and tax havens.

This also implies that the West, Germany included, bears responsibility for Russia’s woes Rich Russians hold as much financial wealth abroad as does the entire Russian population inside Russia itself. Deutsche Bank laundered ten billion US dollars from accounts in Russia from 2011–2015 alone.

The actions of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who lobbied for the Russia-Germany Nord Stream pipeline while in office only to be appointed to the company’s board) show, moreover, that the transnational oligarchy is not only greedy but also venal. Germany should do everything possible to avert an American-led intervention, while also relying on Russia and China as moderating forces. Hence, thinking about relations with Russia until 2030 should pinpoint the core problem – the kleptocratic nature of the Russian regime, which corrupts European financial infrastructure and robs the Russian people of their country’s wealth.

As such, the best foreign policy will start at home with a ban on foreign lobbying and a crackdown on money laundering and tax havens. Distinguishing between state interests and systemic threats – like transnational finance run amok – remains topical as we turn to Iran. Just as even a liberal democratic Russia would have interests in Ukraine or the Middle East, so too would any sovereign Iranian government seek to defend its interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf. As such, a core challenge for Berlin will be to push back against actors in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Washington, who view Iran in ideological terms.

Iran: Between Trump, Xi, and Putin

Granted, Berlin has limited room for action if Trump withdraws from the JCPOA. Germany’s best bet in the short term might be to work with Beijing and Moscow on multilateral solutions to halt Iranian ballistic missile testing – not least because of American hawks’ desire to let the genie out of the bottle and launch a pre-­emptive strike. Such an achievement would offer Trump a chance to declare victory and buy time for the JCPOA.

In the longer term, the responsibility to accept the obvious – that Iran is a legitimate player in the Middle East – lies with Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Washington. Thinking about relations toward 2030, then, Germany should do everything possible to avert an American-led intervention (including scrutinising pro regime-change Iranian diaspora groups in the EU backed by the US), while also relying on Russia and China as moderating forces toward an Iranian nuclear bomb as well as American adventurism.

Timothy Nunan (32) is a Research and Freigeist Fellow at the Center for Global History at the Free University of Berlin. His work focuses on the history of Russia and Eurasia – Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan – in an international context. He is the author of “Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan” (2016), and his present project explores the encounter between the Soviet Union and the international socialist movement with Islamism during the Cold War. He received his DPhil in History from the University of Oxford.