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Scientayatollogy: German tiffs with America

The Economist, 17 August 1996

WHAT do the mullahs who rule Iran and a well-heeled American cult have in
common? Well, for one thing, between them they have managed to bedevil
Germany's relations with the United States, usually as solid as the old
British-American special relationship used to be. And it may take more
than the close of the American presidential election campaign to bring the
two countries together again. 

Post-war Germany's political identity has grown largely out of a tight
relationship with America. Helmut Kohl, whom Bill Clinton in his
sentimental way has called America's 'best friend in the world', is as
passionate about hugging America as he is about European integration.
Warding off French efforts to unlock Europe from America, in political and
defence matters, keeps the chancellor on his toes. 

So Germans take it badly when things go wrong. The United States' new law
to punish firms investing in Iran looks to them like a shot aimed directly
at Germany, though other Europeans are just as much in the firing line. By
comparison, a transatlantic row over the Church of Scientology, a
worldwide but Florida- based cult adept at recruiting Hollywood idols and
boardroom chiefs, might seem to be a summer entertainment. It is more than
that, though, for it has landed Germany just where it dreads to be:
looking narrow and intolerant in American eyes. 

That German democracy should appear suspect in a row over this
money-minded cult is rather bad luck. Political aversion to Scientology's
incursions exploded last week when the youth wing of Mr Kohl's ruling
Christian Democratic Union tried to blockade cinemas showing Hollywood's
'Mission:  Impossible' starring Tom Cruise, the sect's most sparkling
catch. A party boss close to Mr Kohl thereupon proposed banning the sect,
which the United States recognises as a church but which the German
political class, encouraged by a German court decision, prefers to see as
a subversive business operation. 

When the state of Bavaria, Germany's good soldier of Christianity,
announced that it was in effect excluding Scientologists from
public-service jobs, the Americans balked. The State Department gave
warning, informally but cuttingly, against religious intolerance. The cult
leapt at the chance to liken Bavarian policy to Hitler's persecution of
Jews, a sure way to embarrass not just Bavarians but the German
government, and to fan American doubts about Germany. In fact, Germany's
federal authorities have long hesitated to blacklist the American sect,
even though some over-zealous democrats see Scientology as a threat to
Germany's liberal constitution. In the matter of business with Iran,
Germans had better reason to think the United States was singling them
out, mainly because the State Department formally this time, albeit
apparently by mistake - suggested that German firms might escape sanctions
if Bonn dropped its friendly-seeming dialogue with Tehran. Blackmail,
cried German politicians. 

Like its European partners, Germany sees the American attempt to impose
sanctions unilaterally on the world as a distortion of the international
economic order. And Germany has a special position. It maintains closer
contacts with Iran than do most European countries. It has two reasons.
For one, it believes that so large an oil power cannot be ignored when
seeking political solutions in the Middle East. Second, Iran owes it some
DM13 billion (Dollars 8.8 billion) in business credits provided over the
years. So, though new German business investment in Iran - the target of
the American law - has dwindled almost to nothing, the German government
keeps well in touch with Iran's, rather than isolating it, as the United
States would like. 

Aghast at American tactics, Otto Lambsdorff, a Free Democrat elder
statesman in the Kohl coalition, concludes that maybe France has been
right all along about Europe needing to stake out more distance from
America. Count Lambsdorff likes to provoke. Some Germans think all will be
well once the American presidential election is over. But others see fresh
clouds gathering over NATO's expansion to eastern Europe, predicting that
the Americans will seek excuses not to go ahead as fast as the security-
minded Germans want. There should be more than back-slapping on the agenda
when Mr Kohl meets America's election winner. 

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