German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign minister criticized U.S. Republican lawmakers for questioning nuclear talks with Iran, saying in Washington that they’re undermining efforts to forge an agreement.
Wading into the U.S. debate as six world powers seek a deal to halt any attempt by Iran to build a nuclear bomb, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the letter by 47 Republicans fuels mistrust among Iranian negotiators and is “not helpful.”
“This would have been difficult enough without this letter,” Steinmeier told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “Now it’s become more difficult. This is not trivial.”
While paying tribute to U.S.-German bonds since World War II, Steinmeier used his trip to press home Germany’s view that shipments of lethal arms to Ukraine would inflame the conflict and that Iran is “negotiating seriously.”
Pushing back against U.S. advocates of arming Ukraine, he said Germany views Russia as a neighbor and tends to conduct foreign policy in “many shades of gray,” not black and white.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Steinmeier on Wednesday, told senators that the Republican letter on Iran was stunning, irresponsible and “flat wrong.” Steinmeier followed suit, saying negotiators going into a potentially final round of talks next week didn’t need “more irritations.”
Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- have the best chance in a decade to reach agreement with Iran by the end of March, Steinmeier said.
That fragile balance was called into question this week when Republican Senator Tom Cotton authored the letter addressing Iranian leaders, saying that any nuclear agreement may be scrapped by President Barack Obama’s successor “with the stroke of a pen.” Forty-six members of his caucus also signed.
“That this letter of the 47 is not helpful, you can see,” Steinmeier said.
Steinmeier’s criticism drew a rebuke from Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. The German envoy belongs to the “Neville Chamberlain school of diplomacy,” the Washington Post cited McCain as saying. The reference is to the U.K. leader blamed for failing to challenge Nazi Germany in the 1930s and contributing to the launch of World War II.
“The foreign minister of Germany is the same guy that refuses, in his government, to enact any restrictions on the behavior of Vladimir Putin, who is slaughtering Ukrainians as we speak,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to the newspaper. “He has no credibility.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said Steinmeier’s assertion that the letter helps Iran was “the most ridiculous statement I think I’ve ever heard.” He also criticized German and French efforts to overcome the Ukraine crisis.
“You have got a group of nations trying to deal with the most thuggish nation in the world acting like the Keystone cops in my opinion,” Graham said Thursday in the Senate.
Steinmeier stood firm on Germany’s approach in the Ukraine conflict, where Merkel is balancing support for European economic sanctions on Russia with leaving the door open to a revived partnership.
On Wednesday, Steinmeier met members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, both of whom support lethal weapons shipments to Ukraine’s government.
“Can weapons solve it? You know my doubts,” Steinmeier said at CSIS Thursday. “There really is the threat that the entire conflict becomes catapulted into a new phase that at some point can spin completely out of control” and reach “a point of no return.”
That clashes with U.S. lawmakers calling for the deployment of “lethal defense weapons” enabling Ukrainian forces to stand up to Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, voiced his support on Tuesday, citing an “overwhelming view from a wide spectrum” in the U.S.