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reflections

Feb 11, 2010 | 10:13 GMT

6 mins read

Germany and Iran: Reconciling History

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
STRATFOR FOCUSED ON TWO EVENTS on Wednesday that are expected to unravel on Thursday. The first event is the 31st anniversary of the 1979 revolution that brought Iran's clerical regime to power. The second is an important EU summit at which the fate of more than just the troubled Greek economy will be ruminated. Also up for discussion is the fate of the EU itself and Germany's role in it. Both events involve two regional powers and how they are dealing with their past. Let us begin with Iran. Every year since 1979, large pro-government crowds have taken to the streets to celebrate the toppling of the monarchy, and the Iranian state has used the annual event to consolidate its hold over power. This year is expected to be different given the continuing unrest from the opposition Green Movement, which was born in the aftermath of the election on June 12, 2009. The opposition will try to use the occasion of mass rallies to hold protests in a bid to undermine the government's position. The government's task is much harder. It has to ensure that the festivities surrounding the anniversary proceed smoothly while keeping opponents at bay without much use of force –- something that would only contribute to the perception that the regime is weak on the home front. While it is preoccupied with dissenters on the domestic side, the Islamic republic cannot take its eyes off of its foreign policy front. Despite the internal challenges, the regime does not face any existential threat, at least not for quite a while. This means that the United States and its allies have to deal with a radical and belligerent Tehran that continues to defy international pressure aimed at limiting its acquisition of nuclear technology. Both events involve two regional powers and how they are dealing with their past. On Wednesday the United States — which wants to avoid having to exercise the military option — slapped another round of economic sanctions on entities controlled by the country's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This latest move is part of a broader U.S. effort to impose "crippling" sanctions on the Iranian regime as a means of affecting a change in the government's defiant behavior. But with Russia and China remaining opposed to any such move, the effectiveness of sanctions is highly questionable, and thus increases the likelihood of war. Its defiance notwithstanding, Iran also does not want war. This explains the reports that surfaced Wednesday regarding one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest associate, Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, participating in backchannel meetings with U.S. officials in Geneva. Wanting to avoid conflict is one thing. Finding a bilateral solution that also satisfies Israel (the wild card in any such talks) is another. Meanwhile, news out of Berlin neither confirmed nor denied that the German government was preparing a Greek bailout prior to Thursday's critically important EU summit. Originally intended to celebrate 10 years of the euro and the passing of the Lisbon Treaty, the summit may now put European unity to the test to try to save the euro. The key to an ultimate decision in Berlin remains reconciling the different views within the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition. Concerned about promised tax cuts and German industrial prosperity, the free market and somewhat libertarian FDP is firmly committed to policies that solely benefit the German economy, taxpayer and businessman. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, however, is slowly shifting its gaze beyond the economic policy realm to which Berlin's energies have been locked for nearly 60 years, turning its focus to the geopolitical realm. Merkel's CDU does not relish spending German tax euros any more than the FDP does, especially considering the economic uncertainties within Germany. But factions within the CDU are becoming cognizant of the opportunity the Greek imbroglio presents. Even though most German politicians would refuse to acknowledge it, Mitteleuropa (albeit in a demilitarized sense) must be on everyone's mind these days in Berlin. Mitteleuropa was an early 20th century idea that looked to carve out a political and economic sphere of influence for Germany within Central Europe, one that it would be able to counter the then Russian Empire to the east and the British Empire to the west. It was later perverted by Nazi Germany in World War II to include depopulating Jewish and most Slav and Roma presence in the proposed geographical area. However, in its pre-World War I original edition, it "merely" sought a "sphere of influence," not unlike what the Monroe Doctrine sets up for the United States in Latin America. Fast-forward to 2010 and you have most of the EU expectantly gazing at Berlin, hoping that it saves Europe from its current crisis. Paris also has a stake in resolving the current crisis, not only because it is a eurozone member, but also because it knows that after Greece and the rest of the so-called "Club Med" countries (Spain, Portugal and Italy), it is France that will be hurt by rising investor concern over eurozone government debt levels. France has already called upon Germany to facilitate the creation of an "economic government" within the eurozone to keep member states in line with commitments set out by EU treaties. Initially, back in October 2008, Germany balked at the idea of expanding EU powers to such an extent because it would have subverted sovereignty too far for its tastes. But considering the situation today, and prospects of having to underwrite yet another EU bailout, it seems that Berlin is changing its mind. That Germany is looking to merely enhance its powers within the EU due to the crisis is already a step in a direction that Cold War Germany never would have contemplated. The most potent analogy here may be that of the Roman Republic. The Roman Senate had provisions by which, in times of emergency (such as when Hannibal threatened at the gates), it could bestow dictatorial powers on an individual. The EU may be nearing such a choice, albeit with the EU in the position of the Roman Senate, and Germany playing the role of Caesar. The offer may be too tempting for Germany to ignore. The question is: Will Germany's past continue to torture Berlin and prevent it from assuming its natural sphere of influence?

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