Although Germany remains steadfast in retaining its diplomatic ties with Iran, Berlin says that Iranian espionage operations are on the rise in its territories. This intelligence revelation comes on the heels of German efforts to slowly up the pressure on Tehran, amid growing opposition against the Iranian regime.
Tehran’s latest intelligence operations in Germany target Iranians living in exile, pro-Jewish groups and opposition gatherings. Mahsa Amini’s death in September 2022 sparked several rallies in Germany against the Iranian regime, including a massive rally of some 80,000 people in Berlin in October 2022.
Organizers of the Berlin rally said the number of protestors was closer to 100,000, and they demanded that the German authorities push the European Union (EU) to sanction the IRGC as a terrorist organization. In January 2023, the European Parliament voted by a large majority to recommend to European governments to include the IRGC on the EU list of terrorist organizations but the union has yet to decide on the matter.
The German Foreign Ministry insists that it has not ruled out the idea of an EU terrorist designation for the IRGC. However, Berlin has hesitated to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization despite the assertion by at least one German member of Parliament Norbert Rottgen that there is sufficient evidence to make the designation. On the other hand, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have said that there is no court case to justify the move. The German authorities also support an EU move declining to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization without a court decision in one of the EU member countries.
Iran meanwhile threatens to treat European countries and their forces in the Middle East as terrorists if the IRGC is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe. In December 2022, Tehran sanctioned seven Germans including former Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and former German Parliament Speaker Rita Sussmuth to express its dissatisfaction over its declining ties with Germany.
Germany is taking the Iranian threats seriously as it decides its next moves. Its dilemma comes as British antiterrorism police foiled 15 plots linked to Iran recently, involving plans to murder and kidnap. Germany’s domestic intelligence service has identified 160 individuals with links to both Iran and the IRGC, pointing to an extensive Iranian spy network operating in the European country.
In response, Berlin is taking small but steady steps to express its dissatisfaction toward Tehran.
Berlin sees no reason to resume the Iranian nuclear talks which also hit a deadlock against the backdrop of Tehran continuing to rapidly advance its nuclear program. German Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Christofer Burger confirmed that the country’s focus was not on the nuclear talks but on standing with the Iranian people, despite current efforts by Washington to revive the nuclear deal through the use of Gulf intermediaries such as Oman and Qatar.
In November 2022, Germany planned to expand sanctions on Iran along with other EU member countries, particularly targeting groups and individuals involved in cracking down on Iranian protestors. Later in the month, German authorities confirmed that Berlin was imposing more sanctions as Chancellor Olaf Scholz bluntly asked the Iranian authorities, “What kind of government are you that shoots at its own people?”
Although Germany is one of Iran’s largest European trading partners, Berlin halted export credit and investment guarantees to trade with Iran earlier this year. Berlin further suspended a bilateral energy dialogue with Tehran, a management training and trade fair program, while only extending investment guarantees (total value 123 million euros) for smaller projects in Iran.
An invitation by the 2023 Munich Security Conference (MSC) to Iranian opposition figures including the former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi to speak on the sidelines helped advance Berlin’s agenda to show that it aimed to listen to more voices representing the Iranian people who oppose the Iranian establishment.
The MSC refused to issue an invitation to representatives of the Iranian regime. A German member of the European Parliament, Hannah Neumann, underscored the growing gap between the international community and those holding on to power in Iran, reflected in the decision not to invite Tehran to participate in the MSC.
In the context of the aforementioned, the trajectory of German-Iran ties is downhill, at great cost to Tehran, particularly if it leads to European consensus against the IRGC and dealings with Iran. Iran is losing friends and allies quickly, its traditional policy of relying on the Europeans seems to have come to an end, with the European countries taking a much tougher stance since Iranian military involvement on the Russian side in the Russia-Ukraine war was revealed. In addition, more worrying for Iran is growing US-European consensus on how to deal with its belligerency and violations, which does not bode well for the Iranian regime. Historically, it has played off the Europeans against the United States, exploiting their differences over various files. However, with European anger growing over Iranian belligerency on its soil, the pressure is increasing slowly on Iran, and time will tell how the Iranian Regime reacts, does it show flexibility in the context of the vast crises it is facing or will it buckle down and unleash a new round of confrontation? Based on past experience, the Iranian regime only knows confrontation and escalation to respond to crises, which will lead to its further isolation and exacerbate its domestic crises.