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Iran, Congo seen as tough tests for Merkel's Germany

Written by: Staff

BERLIN, Apr 14: Chancellor Angela Merkel aims to keep building up Germany's status as a diplomatic power, but risks are high as she strives to prevent a new war in the West Asia and prepares to lead an EU military force in Congo.

While the two challenges could hardly be more different, Berlin has a single goal for both -- to prove that Germany in the 21st century is a powerful force for good, having shed its Nazi past.

Along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, France, the United States, Russia and China -- Germany is struggling to get Iran to freeze its nuclear fuel programme, which could be used to make atomic weapons.

''The goal for Mrs Merkel at this point is to mediate and help prevent a war,'' said Hajo Funke, a professor of political science at the Free University in Berlin.

For nearly three years, Germany, France and Britain tried to convince Tehran to abandon its uranium enrichment plans but gave up after Iran restarted the programme earlier this year.

As with Iraq in 2002, rumours of US war plans are surfacing.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersch this week cited unnamed US sources in the New Yorker magazine as saying Washington was planning military strikes against Iran.

But war is exactly what Merkel wants to avoid at all costs.

Germany is one of the biggest exporters to Iran and has no interest in adding to turmoil in the West Asia, analysts say.

''Air strikes can bring you to the edge of a big war and an escalation that you cannot control,'' Funke said.

Merkel's predecessor, Social Democrat (SPD) Gerhard Schroeder, joined French President Jacques Chirac in opposing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which soured Berlin's relations with Washington.

But Schroeder's stance on Iraq helped him win a second term in 2002.

Merkel, a conservative, has better relations with Washington than Schroeder, but is also steering clear of Iraq.

Claus Leggewie, a political scientist at the University of Giessen, said Merkel was determined to prove that the Iranian nuclear crisis can be resolved without war, even if a diplomatic solution looks remote.

''Germany wants to demonstrate to the US and its eastern European allies that multilateralism and diplomacy can make a difference,'' Leggewie said.

But diplomacy could fail and Germany might once again be asked to choose between supporting or opposing US military action in the West Asia.

''If we don't find a diplomatic solution over the next few years, then we may be looking at military strikes and that would put Germany in a very difficult position,'' Daniel Keohane, an EU defence and security expert at the Centre for European Reform.


Germany has very different causes for concern as it prepares to lead an EU military force to the vast central African country of Congo, which is scheduled to hold its first democratic elections in decades in June.

This is the first time post-World War Two Germany will lead a military mission to Africa and Berlin is nervous, analysts say. While the size of the mission is not large -- 1,450 troops, a third of them Germans -- its psychological importance is huge.

''It's hugely significant for the Germans in symbolic terms,'' Keohane said, adding that this war-torn region of Africa was neither stable nor safe. ''The danger is real. God forbid if there are casualties. I don't know how the Germans would react.'' Some 17,000 UN peacekeepers are now in Congo, supporting a string of peace deals ending a 1998-2003 civil war that pulled in armies from six neighbouring countries and killed 4 million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

The Germans hope their Congo mission will solidify their image as an altruistic nation that bears no resemblance to Nazi Germany and has no colonial interest in Africa. France, a former colonial power, will also supply a third of the troops.

''If all goes well, it shows the EU can be a force for good and Germany can lead it. If it goes wrong, then it would raise all sorts of questions,'' Keohane said.


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