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German FM: Biden’s election an opportunity for US to rejoin Iran deal

Acknowledging Trump’s role in brokering normalization between Israel and several Arab states, Heiko Maas says he hopes the US president-elect can build on that ‘momentum’

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas arrives for a news conference with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Leipzig, Germany, November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, file)
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas arrives for a news conference with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Leipzig, Germany, November 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, file)

BERLIN (AP) — The election of Joe Biden as the next US president is an opportunity for a “new deal” in trans-Atlantic relations that would revive the close cooperation between America and Europe, but also see Europeans shoulder greater responsibility on the world stage, Germany’s foreign minister said Tuesday.

Heiko Maas also sounded optimistic that Biden could rejoin the 2015 pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which President Donald Trump pulled the US out of, and said there was “momentum” toward restarting Middle East peace talks following the agreements between Israel and several Arab states to normalize ties.

“Joe Biden’s election victory means one thing in particular: New opportunities for the trans-Atlantic partnership,” Maas told The Associated Press in an interview.

“We need a kind of new deal in the trans-Atlantic partnership, the basis of which would consist of responding to international challenges with international solutions and not with a policy of ‘America First’ or ‘Europe First,’” he said.

Maas, who has been Germany’s top diplomat since 2018, said relations with the United States over the past four years often were one-sided.

“Decisions were made by the administration or in the White House, and they were then put in front of us, and we had to deal with them,” he said. “That’s not the cooperation we wished for and still wish for.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and then-US vice president Joe Biden brief the media prior to a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Maas said he hoped the Biden administration would bring the United States back as an “active player” on the world stage, joining other nations in tackling global challenges such as climate change, migration and the coronavirus pandemic.

If that hope is fulfilled, it doesn’t mean Europe should let the US take charge again, he said.

“We in Europe must get used to taking on more responsibility, as least for our immediate and extended neighborhood,” Maas said, citing recent efforts to promote security in North Africa and the adjacent Sahel region as examples.

“In my view, it won’t be the case that the United States will take on the role of global policeman again that we perhaps perceived it to have in the past,” the German minister said, adding that Berlin is eager to hear what the Biden administration expects of its close allies.

Topics of friction between Washington and Berlin, such as Germany’s comparatively low defense spending and the construction of an undersea pipeline for Russian gas that the US considers a threat to European security, likely won’t go away, he said.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) looks at US President Donald Trump walking past her during a group photo as part of the NATO summit in Watford, northeast of London, December 4, 2019 (Christian Hartmann/Pool/AFP)

“I think the style of debate will change, but the issues won’t disappear completely,” Maas told the AP in a video interview from outside Berlin, where he is quarantining after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

However, Maas said that Germany remains committed to gradually increasing its defense spending toward NATO’s target of 2% of gross domestic product in the coming years. Trump made a point during his presidency of calling out US allies that failed to meet the target.

Europe will also have to develop its strategic independence or risk becoming a “plaything” in the competition between the great powers — the United States, Russia and China — according to Maas.

Maas noted the impact of US domestic politics on the rest of the world, and the importance of the reconciliation Biden has pledged to foster at home.

“A lot will depend on how much the domestic political situation in the United States improves, so that we have the basic conditions in which we can face international challenges together with the United States,” he said.

Biden has said he plans for the US to rejoin the World Health Organization, which is seen as key to tackling the pandemic, and the Paris climate accord, which currently unites 189 countries in the fight against global warming.

Maas said that having Washington’s formidable diplomatic machine working with others to solve global problems will be key.

“(This) has actually always been a hallmark of American foreign and security policy,” he said. “And we’re banking on that with the new American government.”

One issue that the United States and Europe cooperated closely on until Trump took office in 2017 was the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration pulled out of the deal two years ago, but Germany, France and Britain have resisted US pressure to follow suit.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his German counterpart Heiko Maas shake hands for media prior to their meeting, in Tehran, Iran, June 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Maas said he sees an opportunity for the US under Biden to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord, provided the government in Tehran stops breaching its obligations under the treaty.

Maas said that, like Washington, Germany takes issue with Iran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East, its ballistic missile program and its threats toward Israel.

“We need to talk, together with the United States and Iran, about whether it’s possible to further develop this treaty in such a way that other issues can be included,” he said, noting that it’s in Tehran’s interest to have crippling economic sanctions lifted.

Maas acknowledged the Trump administration’s success in kickstarting the stalled Middle East peace process, with several Arab nations recently agreeing to start normalizing relations with Israel.

“There’s momentum,” he said. “And I’m pretty certain that Joe Biden will use that as president of the United States.”

From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan are seen on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, September 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Biden’s election could also affect the European Union’s tense trade negotiations with Britain. The president-elect has criticized the UK government’s willingness to breach parts of its legally binding Brexit agreement with the EU. Germany currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Maas said he was optimistic the EU and Britain will manage to reach a trade deal before a Brexit transition period ends on December 31. “If the election of Joe Biden contributes to the limited time that we now have being used effectively, then that’s good,” he said.

Asked whether Trump’s departure might see a reversal of his administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from Germany, Maas said he was “pretty certain that the new American government will consider the issue and possibly also position itself anew there.”

Having a new president in the White House willing to engage the rest of the world will likely make it harder for those who have stoked anti-American sentiment in Germany over the past four years, he said.

But he added: “I have in the past always resisted (the idea) that the German-American relationship should only be reduced to Donald Trump’s last tweet.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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