January 25, 2019 | The Washington Examiner
The unstoppable envoy
January 25, 2019 | The Washington Examiner
The unstoppable envoy
Richard Grenell has made a career of confounding expectations. That hasn’t changed since becoming U.S. ambassador to Germany last year.
On his first day of work, he tweeted a warning shot after President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal: “U.S. sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” The reaction from the buttoned-up diplomatic community was swift. “Never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble,” admonished a former German ambassador to the U.S.
But “trouble” is in the eye of the beholder: In just the past eight months, Grenell has convinced blue-chip German companies to pull out of Iran’s volatile market, stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government from sending more than $400 million in cash to Tehran to evade American sanctions, and got the German government to ban Mahan Air, “the airline of choice for terrorists.”
Grenell’s effectiveness is one of the most interesting stories of the Trump presidency. Grenell, 52, is a veteran diplomat who was previously the longest-serving U.S. spokesman at the United Nations. He worked for four ambassadors to the U.N., including John Bolton, now the national security adviser. Both men share the view that the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the greatest lethal threats to international and American security.
Grenell blends charm, an intense work ethic, conservative principles, combativeness, and coercive diplomacy into a formidable presence as an envoy. When an aggressive form of cancer assaulted his body five years ago, he defeated it. “It was the most challenging thing I ever did,” Grenell told the Washington Examiner during an interview conducted shortly before the New Year.
A month after he arrived in Berlin last May, he organized a “highlight women’s health and cancer screening” at the embassy. He is the most senior openly gay official under the Trump administration.
The Berlin posting is arguably the most important Trump ambassadorship. The president has a rocky relationship with Merkel, making it crucial that Grenell possess a diplomat’s skill set. He had plenty of doubters. The New York Times editorial board launched an early June 2018 broadside against Grenell’s qualifications: “It may be anachronistic to expect politically appointed American diplomats to fully abide by traditional European standards of diplomatic correctness. And it may be unrealistic to expect that the handpicked envoy of a president who has so totally debased political discourse could be respectful or wise in his utterances. But Mr. Grenell does not, and should not, represent the United States.” What the Times’ partisan blinders prevented the editors from seeing was that Grenell’s unorthodox style of diplomacy breathed the right sort of life and fire into a stale European diplomatic bureaucracy.
CNN reporter Miranda Green complained of his “snarling attacks on Obama administration officials and a Twitter feed that he used to hurl darts” at Democrats. The inability of reporters to maintain a shred of objectivity regarding Grenell was most evident in the response of Toronto Sun scribe Daniel Dale, who wrote, “For the first time in American history, a Twitter troll has been made an ambassador. There is hope for all you eggs and bald eagles.”
That got to the heart of much of Grenell’s initial negative press: His fiery approach to pushing back on reporters left many a bruised ego in his wake. Even Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., got in on the act, opposing Grenell’s nomination in April 2018. “It would have been my hope and desire that for such an important ally as Germany, the president would have put forth a serious, credible, experienced diplomat who could strengthen our relationship with Germany,” Menendez sniped.
Grenell’s telegenic looks, combined with his past contributorship on Fox News, sharp presentation, and occasional casual no-tie appearance, seem to make him a lightning rod in a way other diplomats in Europe simply aren’t. Grenell, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, leaves memorable impressions on viewers.
Grenell’s tough-love approach, however, turned out to be perfect to the moment, thoroughly exploding the critique from Menendez and other Democrats. And his public editorializing isn’t nearly as unfiltered as his naysayers claim: He wouldn’t comment on Brexit, for example, or Merkel’s impending departure and said “the U.S. needs a strong EU as a partner.” Grenell’s term so far is a story of unorthodox diplomacy and a comprehensive approach to derailing rogue states’ sanctions-avoiding schemes.
Grenell’s laser-like focus on Iran’s regime is fueled by his belief that “it is a matter of life and death for many; we know [the Iranians] destabilized Syria, we know they have an aggressive strategy to use terror to destabilize the entire region. Their operation is growing in Europe and we have seen a diplomat in Austria get outed as a phony diplomat. Someone who was literally caught planning a terrorist attack in Paris. This is not what diplomats do. They are supposed to problem-solve, not create terror plots.”
Grenell praised the German authorities who arrested Assadollah Assadi in Bavaria, a diplomat in Iran’s Vienna embassy who was accused of masterminding a plot to blow up a meeting of Iranian dissidents in Paris last June. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, was among those who spoke at the Paris conference.
Grenell highlighted the running list of foiled Iranian terrorist plots in Europe. In November, Denmark said Tehran’s intelligence agency planned to murder an exiled leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, an organization fighting for independence for Iran’s Khuzestan Province. Sweden extradited a Norwegian national of Iranian origin to Denmark with respect to the blocked plot against the ASMLA leader.
In July, the Netherlands expelled two Iranian diplomats, but the Dutch intelligence service remained mum about the diplomats’ nefarious activities at the time. On Jan. 8, however, the Dutch Foreign Ministry announced it had “strong indications that Iran was involved in the assassinations” of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin living in the Netherlands. One of the murdered men was Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz.
It is unclear whether the two Iranian diplomats expelled in July were connected to the assassinations in the Netherlands.
And just last month, Albania expelled two Iranian diplomats, including Tehran’s ambassador, for “damaging its national security.” The Iranian agents are believed to have been behind plotted terrorist attacks in the Balkan country, including some targeting Israelis.
Another example of the high-stakes “life and death” strategy that Grenell cited designed to thwart Iranian expansionism involves the German company Krempel. The firm sold Tehran businessmen construction parts that turned up in Iranian-produced chemical missiles that gassed 21 Syrian children and adults in early 2018. In December, Krempel, which has a distribution center in Deerfield, Mich., said it shut down its business with Iran.
Grenell’s muscular diplomacy was on display prior to him becoming ambassador. In a 2017 Fox Business interview, he pulled no punches with pushing the Trump administration to pull the plug on its membership in the notoriously corrupt U.N. Human Rights Council. “We have tried to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council for a long very time. … If you are going to get on this prestigious body, then you shouldn’t be a human rights abuser yourself. The way the U.N. rules work, countries’ records are ignored.” Consequently, Grenell said in his assertive, blunt way: “The U.S. should back out. We should not not give money to it. And we shouldn’t be a member.” Over a year later, in June 2018, the U.S. followed Grenell’s advice: Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Halley declared the council to be a “cesspool of political bias” and withdrew the U.S. from the council.
Grenell’s comprehensive, pressure-point campaign against the ayatollahs has set off a firestorm of criticism in the federal republic. German Foreign Ministry officials complained to Washington. When asked about the complaints, a ministry spokesman wrote the Washington Examiner by email that “the federal government does not comment on confidential communication with its partners.”
The powerful federal minister for economic affairs and energy, Peter Altmaier, was more forthcoming. Altmaier spokeswoman Tanja Alemany wrote to the Washington Examiner, “The federal government is working together with its partners in the E3/EU circle to support the Vienna nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and opposes extraterritorial U.S. sanctions (see also: EU Blocking Regulation). This includes continuing to implement the JCPOA as long as Iran adheres to its JCPOA obligations.” The E3 consists of Germany, Britain, and France.
Altmaier has engaged in tirades against the U.S. policy toward Iran, stating in August 2018, “We won’t let Washington dictate us with whom we can do business.” Nonetheless, Altmaier warns his fellow Europeans against slipping into anti-Americanism, writing in a German paper in September that anti-Americanism “has long since become a middle-class mass sport,” and adding, “Those who criticize the United States or its president in the tone of conviction and the feeling of moral superiority receive applause.”
A perfect example of this: a reporter for leading German newsweekly Der Spiegel was recently found to have fabricated stories for years about the alleged backwardness and reactionary behavior of Americans. Grenell recently took Der Spiegel to task in a letter calling for an independent commission to investigate the years of anti-American diatribes the magazine spread.
Der Spiegel’s response to Grenell’s objections to the deeply ingrained anti-Americanism at the magazine was to publish a hitjob on the ambassador in January, claiming he is “politically isolated” and “finds few friends” in Germany.
Grenell’s achievements contradict the thrust of the profile. Take the example of Grenell’s intensive efforts to extradite the Nazi camp guard Jakiw Palij from Queens, New York, to Germany last August. Grenell worked with German officials to secure the removal of Palij. Previous ambassadors and U.S. administrations had failed to convince the German government to accept Palij, who died in the federal republic this month, age 95.
The U.S. government said Palij played an “indispensable role” in ensuring Jews were murdered at the Trawniki concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Der Spiegel could not bring itself to mention the case of Trawniki in its profile.
Politico’s chief European correspondent, the Berlin-based Matthew Karnitschnig, tweeted: “So much for turning a new leaf. After @RichardGrenell lambasts @DerSPIEGEL for knee-jerk anti-Americanism, German mag counters with classic hatchet job. The one named quote is from a Green who won’t meet the man.”
Spiegel also omitted Grenell’s innovative business diplomacy, designed to convince the Merkel administration to import more liquefied natural gas from the United States. In October, Grenell told Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto, “That means for the first time, we are going to have an LNG terminal in Germany.”
The LNG agreement with Germany has helped to smooth over some of the rough patches between Trump and Merkel. Merkel’s recalcitrance in weaning Germany off its addiction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gas enterprise is a source of great friction, pitting the U.S. and scores of European countries on the one side and Germany on the other side.
Not everyone appreciates Grenell’s tough love. Martin Schulz, who ran for chancellor against Merkel in 2015, termed Grenell a “far-right colonial officer” in June 2018. (This is the same Schulz who in 2016 infamously praised as “stimulating” Mahmoud Abbas’ speech in the European Parliament in which the head of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah party falsely accused rabbis in Israel of calling on their government to poison the water used by Palestinians.)
Former Social Democratic Party Chancellor Gerhard Schroder lashed out at Grenell in similar terms, declaring, “I get the impression he sees himself as an occupying officer rather than an ambassador in a sovereign country.”
Schroder, who infamously whipped up anti-American hysteria to win his 2002 election, was appointed, in 2017, chairman of energy producer Rosneft, the second-largest state-controlled company in Russia by revenue. The pro-Putin former chancellor (he called Putin a “flawless democrat”) also serves as chairman of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that is owned by natural gas giant Gazprom, the largest state-controlled company in Russia.
The Nord Stream 2 project will create enormous German dependence on Russian energy. In the second week of January, Grenell sent letters to German companies involved in Nord Stream 2. “We emphasize that companies involved in Russian energy exports are taking part in something that could prompt a significant risk of sanctions,” wrote Grenell. While the letter triggered outrage among some news outlets and politicians, Germany’s Der Bild (the largest-circulation newspaper in Europe) sided with Grenell.
To be sure, the harsh anti-Americanism that Grenell faces among the federal republic’s chattering classes predates the Trump administration. A number of German commentators chalk it up to bitterness over Germany’s reliance on American-led power to save the continent from the Nazi threat. Yet it’s also worth noting that Schroder courted Holocaust denier and then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 in an effort to boost bilateral trade.
German-Iranian business groups declined to comment for this article on U.S. efforts to halt trade with Tehran.
In sharp contrast to U.S. policy toward Tehran, Merkel has largely allowed Germany’s powerful business community to determine the country’s foreign policy and has continued to prioritize trade with Iran over human rights and international security. Merkel’s government provides 57 German businesses with nearly 1 billion euros in state credit insurance guarantees to facilitate that commerce. Alemany, the spokeswoman for Altmaier, confirmed that export credit guarantees and investment guarantees are still provided to German companies in connection with Iran.
Germany exported $3.5 billion in goods to Iran in 2017, making the federal republic its largest EU trade partner. The EU exported roughly $12 billion in merchandise to Iran in the same year. Roughly 120 German companies operate inside the Islamic Republic, and 10,000 German businesses conduct trade with Iran.
In the short time since Grenell took up his post as ambassador, major German transnational companies including BMW, Karcher, BASF, SMS Group, Munich Re, IMS Deutschland, Siemens, Daimler, and Deutsche Telekom have announced they will slash their business relations with Iran.
There is also a personal aspect to Grenell’s efforts to confront Iran — the leading international state sponsor of terrorism. As a conservative, gay, and evangelical Christian envoy, he notes, “I get messages every day from people inside Iran. They are Christian or gay or have some other hardship in which they tell me their concerns on how they can’t live normally because of their fears of the government.”
A 2008 British WikiLeaks cable revealed that Iran’s regime executed “between 4,000 and 6,000 gays and lesbians” since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “In the past year, religious freedom in Iran continued to deteriorate for both recognized and unrecognized religious groups, with the government targeting Baha’is and Christian converts in particular.”
Grenell’s faith has guided his work, and he has challenged the assumption that a religious, Christian, gay man is a contradiction. “My time at Evangel [a Christian college in Missouri] taught me that all truth is God’s truth no matter where it’s found, which resonated with me ironically because my truth was that I was born gay,” Grenell told the Atlantic in 2017. “I started to realize that if I wanted to be authentic about who I was and have a real relationship with the creator, I had to find a way to be honest.”
Grenell has won accolades from a spectrum of senators with divergent views on U.S. foreign policy, including noninterventionists such as Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Sergio Gor, Paul’s deputy chief of staff, told the Washington Examiner: “From defending religious liberties to ensuring Europe doesn’t take advantage of the United States, to promoting U.S. trade in Germany, Ambassador Grenell has become President Trump’s go-to diplomat in Europe.”
Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” may be apocryphal, but if asked in sincerity today the answer would be Berlin.
That is underscored by Grenell’s efforts to remedy a bitter tariff dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. The Washington Post reported in January that Grenell met in December with Kosovo President Hashim Thaci. The Kosovo leader promised to lift harsh tariffs imposed on Serbian products. Thaci said he reached out to Grenell because the diplomat is “Trump’s go-to-person in Europe.”
Grenell used the opportunity, according to the Post, to express U.S. concerns about the persecution of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities in Kosovo — a Muslim-majority country with a population of just over 1.8 million. The importance of settling the Kosovo-Serbia spat lies in the fact that it could lead to Serbia disentangling itself from the orbit of Russian influence. Putin’s Russia favors the fractured relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Iran, however, remains Grenell’s key challenge in Berlin. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party in particular and her coalition government in general could be the keys to influencing radical improvement in Tehran’s nuclear, human rights, and foreign policy behavior. If Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, rejoins U.S. sanctions against Iran, the other big Western European economies — France and the United Kingdom — would likely follow Berlin’s lead.
Unfortunately, Merkel and her French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, are working diligently to establish — and to find a host country for — the so-called special purpose vehicle, or SPV, meant to enable European companies to evade U.S. sanctions concerning payment networks when engaged in trade with Iran.
Grenell said the German government is “applying something [SPV] that the business community is not demanding. We have made it clear that it is not a good idea. I think they are at risk of American sanctions when they go around U.S. sanctions.” The most powerful U.S. ambassador on the continent added, “Public pronouncements from the foreign ministry are in direct contradiction from what we hear from German CEOs. There is no desire to do business with Iran and it is not an issue to abide by sanctions.”
In a December interview with the German-language business publication Wirtschaftswoche, Jose Campos Nave, a top executive with the management consulting firm Rodl & Partner, confirmed the efficacy of U.S. sanctions. “The business people are paralyzed,” he said, due to the “chaos” of U.S. sanctions on Iran that leaves companies uncertain about what trade is permitted and what is prohibited.
“The [German] trade volume with the U.S. is 80 times bigger than that with Iran. No one wants to spoil [their] U.S. business, even if the industry may not be affected by the sanctions. That’s why almost everyone left Iran,” said Campos Nave.
While acknowledging that European companies can choose their business partners, Grenell said, “We don’t think anyone should be doing business with Iran. They don’t get to do business with both Iran and the U.S.” The envoy termed U.S. policy a method to “dry up every single penny that the Iranian regime tries to get its hand on.”
On another Iranian front within EU territory, Iran’s wholly owned subsidiary, the Lebanese terrorist entity Hezbollah, is allowed to operate on the continent. In 2013, the EU merely classified the so-called military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity, after it blew up a tour bus in Bulgaria in July 2012, murdering five Israelis and their Bulgarian Muslim bus driver. An additional 32 Israelis were injured.
“We have made it clear that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and asked all allies to consider the same designation,” the ambassador said. The U.S., the Arab League, Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands — the only EU country to do so — have proscribed Hezbollah’s entire organization as a terrorist entity. The supposed divide between its political and military wings is fictitious.
According to German intelligence reports from 2018, there are 950 active Hezbollah members in Germany who raise funds and recruit members. Prior to al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, Hezbollah was responsible for the largest number of American deaths in terrorist operations. In December, EU counterterrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove told the Brussels-based media outlet EURACTIV that some EU countries wanted to outlaw all of Hezbollah in 2013.
Germany isn’t one of them. Berlin refused last March to outlaw Hezbollah as a terrorist organization as part of talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
Two highly reliable sources familiar with the U.S. talks with Germany, France, and the United Kingdom told the Washington Examiner that Merkel’s administration is the “least cooperative” of the three European powers in remedying the deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal. The Germans tossed an additional wrench in the talks by linking an effort to ban Hezbollah with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The sources said the Merkel administration considers the Trump administration as too pro-Israel. The talks broke down and Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA nuclear deal a few months later.
Grenell’s sharp-elbowed diplomacy has raised his stock. His name was floated as a candidate for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Trump’s chief of staff. For now, he has more modest near-term goals. When asked about his future, he said with a broad smile: “Finish building my house in Palm Springs and have a gin at 5 p.m.”
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.