BERLIN, May 22 (Reuters)
Germany's government will help German firms with business in Iran where it can, but cannot entirely shield them from the U.S. decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions against Tehran, the economy minister told a newspaper.
European companies conducting business in Iran face U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord between six major powers and Iran. EU officials say there is no easy way to protect EU firms and banks from the extraterritorial nature of the U.S. sanctions.
Asked how the German government could assist German firms feeling nervous in the wake of the U.S. decision, Altmaier told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper that Berlin would help them assess the situation and developments while also urging the U.S. to grant exemptions and deadline extensions.
"We will help where we can, but there is no way of completely averting the consequences of this unilateral withdrawal," he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will meet in Washington on Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has demanded that Iran make sweeping changes or face "the strongest sanctions in history."
Underlining the growing divide with Tehran, a senior commander from Iran's Revolutionary Guards poured scorn on Pompeo's threat on Tuesday, saying Iran's people would respond by punching the Secretary of State in the mouth.
Michael Gahler, a German conservative in the European Parliament, warned that Washington's get-tough approach would only further strengthen the position of hardliners in Tehran, while doing little to improve Israel's security.
"U.S. industry also had no interest in seeing contacts with us worsened indirectly via the policies directed at Iran," Gahler told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
Turning to the U.S. decision to impose import duties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum - from which European Union countries have been exempted until June 1 - Altmaier said Europe was in favor of free trade and wanted tariffs to be reduced, not raised:
"When tariffs are increased, it's the citizens who foot the bill and, if goods become more expensive, jobs are jeopardized."
He said there would be no winner in a tariff or trade war, adding: "If you fight fire with fire, all you're left with is scorched earth. And it would be the consumers who suffer. That would be fatal and that's why I'm fighting for free trade and our jobs with all of my might."
RUSSIA AND EUROPE
Altmaier said a sharp cooling of the relationship between the European Union and Russia in recent years and a downturn in trading had hit millions of people in Europe.
"We'll talk to the new Russian government about how, despite sanctions and punitive tariffs, an economic exchange can be developed that leads to new economic dynamism," Altmaier said.
"Of course, that doesn't get rid of the political differences. It would be wrong to lift the EU sanctions against Russia at the moment because the reasons that led to them haven't changed yet," he added.
Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron's comment this month that Germany needed to wean itself off the "fetish of fiscal conservatism" to become a leading force for European renewal, Altmaier said Germany was prepared to invest in Europe, bring about reforms and strengthen Europe.
He said Germany had found that sticking to a balanced budget had resulted in more prosperity and financial wiggle room, and meant it could invest more.