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Germany, Britain drift apart in effort to cool Iran tensions

By PATRICK DONAHUE | Bloomberg | Published: July 31, 2019

The unified European approach to resolving tensions in the Persian Gulf showed signs of strain, with senior German officials warning that the United Kingdom may be drifting closer to an American-led operation that had previously been rebuffed by governments in Paris and London.

While Germany stands by its resistance to use military forces to protect shipping in the region, Boris Johnson's rise to become British prime minister last week could put the European Union's stance in jeopardy.

"The new government appears to have changed course to align with the Americans," Johann Wadephul, a lawmaker with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview. "The U.S. is pursuing a completely different path than the one we are," said the senior member on the foreign affairs committee, citing comments by Johnson's foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, that he said undermined any EU initiative.

Raab told The Times over the weekend that any EU naval mission wouldn't be "viable" without U.S. support. On Monday, he told BBC radio that he wanted as broad a coalition as possible.

Simmering tensions with Iran involving attacks on tankers and drones is driving a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, with the U.K. and France last week essentially opting out of the U.S.-backed "Operation Sentinel." EU governments last week floated an alternative European maritime initiative separate from the American project.

Germany doubled down on its position and all but ruled out a new U.S. request to help secure the vital shipping artery through the Persian Gulf.

"One thing we must avoid is that it comes to an escalation that never ends, and we find ourselves sleepwalking into a far greater conflict," Olaf Scholz, Germany's finance minister and vice chancellor, told broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday. "I am very skeptical, and I think that's a skepticism that many others share."

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas ruled out participating in a U.S.-led proposal during a closed-door meeting with lawmakers last week, according to Nils Schmid, a Social Democratic lawmaker on the foreign affairs committee in Germany's lower house.

"Europeans don't want to go along with this confrontational logic of the U.S. government," Schmid said in an interview on Tuesday, adding that he would only side with a non-military EU effort in the region.

President Donald Trump's administration ratcheted up pressure on Merkel on Tuesday, with a statement from the U.S. embassy saying it had formally sought help from Germany, France and the U.K. to secure the Strait of Hormuz and "combat Iranian aggression."

"Members of the German government have been clear that freedom of navigation should be protected," a spokeswoman for Ambassador Richard Grenell said in an emailed statement. "Our question is, protected by whom?"

An official with Germany's foreign ministry said any alignment with Trump's campaign of "maximum pressure" is out of the question — and that the request had been acknowledged, without offering any contribution. Merkel's government is instead in close contact with French and British counterparts, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Scholz said the government's position on the U.S. demands is clear and hasn't been affected by the latest pressure from Trump's administration.

Merkel's CDU, which governs on the federal level with the Social Democrats, is less resistant to a military-oriented mission. Wadephul said that, for now, he could support German aerial surveillance.

But unlike the British and French military, German participation in foreign missions has to be approved by the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, and the Social Democratic opposition rules out any such move.

"If one manages to ensure that there's no constant escalation between Iran and many others in the region, then that's good protection for shipping there," said Scholz, the leading Social Democrat in Merkel's cabinet. "The worst thing would be real military conflict in the region, then shipping is truly endanger."

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