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Germany’s Hostages in Iran, and “Critical Dialogue” with the Mullahs

8:30 AM, Dec 16, 2010 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL
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Germany’s journalists, human rights activists, and taxpayers are paying a painful price for its country’s woefully flawed “critical dialogue” policy with the Iranian regime.

Germany’s Hostages in Iran, and “Critical Dialogue” with the Mullahs

Last month, Iran’s rulers paraded two German journalists, Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch of the Bild newspaper, on an Iranian state-controlled television station, claiming that the two journalists admitted to being hoodwinked into travelling to Iran by Mina Ahadi, a German-Iranian human rights activist.

Ahadi, who lives in exile in Germany, is leading an international campaign against stoning in the Islamic Republic. She is deeply aware of the critical situation of the two journalists, saying, "They have been in prison for a month…no contact with their family, no phone contact, only once have German diplomats visited these journalists. They are under pressure."

Both journalists were arrested in Iran in mid-October for merely interviewing family members of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman who was sentenced death by stoning for alleged adultery.

This is only the latest chapter in the Iranian regime’s history of doing what it can to crush dissent domestically and at the same time force Western European countries to recoil from their human rights criticisms of Iran’s ruthless behavior.

So what’s Germany trying to achieve by engaging in its 26-year-old policy of “critical dialogue” with the mullahs? Well, the running joke about Germany’s former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who commenced the policy with Iran in 1984, was the real purpose of German-Iranian cooperation was to engage in “critical dialogue” about U.S. foreign policy.

Whatever it means, and whatever it hopes to accomplish, on thing is clear: Germany’s notion of “critical dialogue” is in disarray. The Wall Street Journal Europe editorial page captured how Germany’s soft approach to Iran’s rulers has reached a dead end:

Berlin is reluctant to impose harsh sanctions against the Islamic Republic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel still refuses to shut down the Hamburg-based European Iranian Trade Bank, which the U.S. Treasury blacklisted in September. As long as Tehran hold those journalists, Berlin will have to think twice about following Washington's lead.

Then again, the fate of the two journalists could also help steel Mrs. Merkel's resolve. If having their journalists treated as hostages is what Germany gets for its "critical dialogue" and "cultural exchange" with Iran, then maybe it's time for her government to take a tougher line.

Germany’s foreign policy now under the leadership of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who considers Genscher to be a mentor figure, continues to replicate Genscher’s high intensity appeasement policy. Westerwelle’s Foreign Ministry has facilitated trips for members of his pro-Iranian trade business party (Free Democratic Party) as well as a parliamentary delegation to travel to Iran. Rainer Stinner, a member of parliament and a foreign policy spokesman of the Free Democrats, visited Iran last summer. Stinner rejects sanctions against the U.S.-designated terror entity the Islamic Revolutionary Guards because the IRGC controls vast sectors of the Iranian economy and it would adversely affect EU-Iranian trade.

In November, Elke Hoff, a Free Democratic MP, visited Iran and declined to respond to press queries about her secret trip. Hoff, a proponent of German-Iranian trade, is a member of the German-Iranian parliamentary group and serves on the board of the German Near and Middle East Association, a pro-Iranian business trade organization. The association’s honorary chairman is former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who last year met with President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad in Tehran to promote German-Iranian trade.

The regime-controlled Iranian press quickly exploited Hoff’s visit as a sign of political and diplomatic normalcy and Hoff, wittingly or unwittingly, turned herself into a useful idiot for Iran’s despots.

In October, five German lawmakers—including members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition parties—traveled to Iran to meet with a motley crew of leading human rights violators, misogynists, and anti-Semites. The five MPs sought to promote "cultural cooperation" between the two parliaments and countries. Ironically, the five legislators went from a closed society in Iran to a closed-door parliamentary session in Germany to report on their journey.

The taxpayer sponsored political junket with some of Iran’s leading Holocaust deniers raised hardly any attention within the German media at a time when the U.S. is trying to isolate Iran.

Twenty-six-years of German “critical dialogue” and political appeasement toward the Iranian regime is finding its mirror image among many German news outlets and Germany's democracy (and pro-Iranian democrats) is taking the hard hits. The time is ripe for Germany to implement human rights sanctions against Iran’s regime. The first step would be to recall the German ambassador to Iran, Bernd Erbel, as a sign of formal protest.

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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