German-Iranian ties have had their ups and downs, with a dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program largely dominating bilateral relations for the past eight years.
But there were also other problems, among them Iran’s human rights situation and Tehran’s regional role in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
A major stumbling block in improving relations between Tehran and Berlin has always been Iran’s open threats against Israel, Germany’s closest ally in the Middle East.
That notwithstanding, Germany is the largest European Union economic partner of Iran.
German-Iranian trade ties up despite worsening bilateral relations
Interestingly enough, the expansion of German-Iranian trade ties in 2021 went hand in hand with the election of hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
According to the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the trade volume between the two countries stood at €787.1 million ($806 million) in the first five months of the current year alone, up 7% compared to the same period of the previous year.
However, bilateral relations deteriorated as Berlin is spearheading a much tougher EU stance on Tehran because of a security crackdown on the pro-freedom movement in the Islamic Republic.
Iran has been the scene of nationwide protests since the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old woman died in police custody on Sept. 16 after apparently being mistreated. The so-called morality police had arrested her for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code.
More than 400 people are said to have been killed so far in the protests, and thousands have been arrested.
On Nov. 14, the EU decided to impose sanctions against leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). One of the biggest supporters in the run-up was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who criticized Iran unusually sharply.
Scholz welcomed the EU’s decision by saying, "We want to further increase the pressure on the political leadership."
"The Iranian government is solely responsible for the explosion of violence," said the chancellor in his weekly video message.
Scholz, who had initially been harshly criticized by the German public for his silence on the dismal Iranian human rights situation, lashed out at the Iranian government’s security clampdown.
"What kind of government are you that shoots at its own citizens? Anyone who acts like this must count on our resistance," he said.
Germany is demanding an "immediate end to the violence" and the release of political prisoners and imprisoned journalists, said the chancellor.
Furthermore, the chancellor clearly sided with the protesters in Iran.
"But I say to the demonstrators and the citizens with Iranian roots here: We stand for everything you demand: for human rights and women's rights. We stand with the Iranian people," he said.
For a long time, Berlin was careful to maintain political contacts with Tehran as it was scrambling to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
This attitude appears to be changing now as Berlin no longer expects to have a realistic chance of reviving the Iranian nuclear agreement, according to the daily Welt newspaper.
Iranian exile community steps up pressure on Scholz for tougher stance
In addition, the influential Iranian diaspora in Germany has stepped up its political campaign to push the center-left government comprised of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats to adopt a tougher stance towards the Iranian government.
Tens of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets of Germany over the past eight weeks to call for stronger EU support of the pro-freedom movement inside Iran.
They strongly criticized German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock for not doing enough to halt the Iranian government’s suppression of peaceful protests.
Berlin-based Iranian political activists have said that while Baerbock has been pursuing a feminist foreign policy whose focus is protecting women’s rights all over the world, she should have done more to protect the Iranian women’s movement, which is bearing the brunt of the security crackdown.
German MPs voice solidarity with Iran protest movement
Earlier this month, the German Parliament also expressed solidarity with the Iranian protest movement.
"We condemn the brutal violence and stand in solidarity with the people who are demonstrating against human rights violations and for freedom and democracy," said a motion submitted by the coalition factions of the co-ruling Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats.
It calls on the federal government to "maintain the already increased political and diplomatic pressure on the regime in Tehran."
Other demands included the tightening of EU sanctions against Iran, support for non-governmental organizations and the collection of evidence against those responsible for state violence and despotism.
Iran experts warn of further deteriorating German-Iranian ties
Experts on Iran have warned of a dramatic worsening of German-Iranian relations if the protests further escalate in the coming weeks.
"Bilateral relations are currently deteriorating rapidly because Tehran is cracking down on the protests. This leads to sanctions against Iran as well as Iranian reactions like calling Germany a ‘Satan.’ This leads to a downward spiral," a chief correspondent of the Handelsblatt business daily, Mathias Brüggmann, told Anadolu Agency.
He added that it was "not unlikely" that the IRGC would be placed on the EU terror list.
Brüggmann's comments were underscored by the chairman of the Bonn-based German Initiative for the Middle East (DINO), Thomas Nehls, who called the German government’s policy on Iran "helpless."
Nehls pointed out that the tough security crackdown by the Iranian government on the peaceful protests led the chancellor to react tough with the leadership of the Islamic Republic.
"It is clear that the nature of the repression in Iran led the calm and even-tempered Scholz to react in this way," he said.
The former journalist warned that German-Iranian ties could even further worsen if the suppression of the peaceful protests continues.
"One should not rule out anything in light of the ongoing brutal repression of protests," Nehls stressed.
When it comes to future prospects of Tehran-Berlin ties, one thing is clear: the German government will have to carefully balance out its Iran policy when on one hand, it comes to its political and economic interests, and on the other hand, dealing with the ongoing public pressure to cut all ties with the Islamic Republic as a result of a deepening repression in that country.
AA/Oliver Towfigh Nia