The Magazine

German-Iranian Relations

A lovers' discourse.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL
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On November 3, six days before the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, freshly reelected German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered what many German commentators deemed to be the speech of her political career before a joint session of Congress. Merkel championed the unwavering contribution of American presidents Reagan, Bush senior, and Kennedy in bringing down the Berlin Wall.

The Merkel administration's own derelict Iran policy, however, has bolstered the wall between the West and the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of Iranians seeking a democratic nation as well as a break with the jingoistic foreign policy of their mullahs.Her robust rhetoric in Washington--"zero tolerance must also be shown if .  .  . weapons of mass destruction fall into the hands of Iran"--is belied by the ongoing sweet talk between Tehran and Berlin.

This long-standing lover's discourse, initiated by German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in 1984, is largely defined by the Islamic Republic's infatuation with German technology, and the Federal Republic's willingness to reciprocate--for example, by permitting Siemens-Nokia to supply surveillance technology to the Iranian regime in 2008. The monitoring equipment was used to stifle Internet, Twitter, mobile, and landline communications among Iranian protestors following the rigged election in June.

Notwithstanding Merkel and former Social Democratic party (SPD) foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's tough talk about turning the economic screws on the mullahs, the ex-Grand Coalition between the SPD and Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union failed between 2005 and 2009 to introduce unilateral sanctions. The significance of German technology in sustaining the Iranian regime was neatly summed up by Michael Tockuss, the former president of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Tehran: "Some two-thirds of Iranian industry relies on German engineering products."

Merkel's new governing coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP) might very well bring us Act II of Germany's impotent Iran foreign policy. The FDP, the party of Germany's new foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, vehemently rejects curtailing German-Iranian trade, and during the 2002 federal election Westerwelle tolerated the late Jürgen Möllemann's (a top FDP politician) mass-mailing of election flyers bashing former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Möllemann's campaign strategy was widely viewed as the first public use of anti-Semitism to win over voters since the Hitler movement.

That toxic combination of pro-Iran trade policies and Westerwelle's hands-off approach to Möllemann's loathing of Israel helps to explain why the national security alarm bells promptly rang in Israel as Westerwelle became the new foreign minister.

Berlin's liaison with Tehran makes a mockery of Germany's so-called "special relationship" with Israel. The latter is now the jilted lover that Germany attempts to reassure, even as its actions dash Israel's expectations of fidelity. As Merkel declared to Congress that "Israel's security will never be open to negotiation," Israeli naval commandos were preparing a mission to seize the Francop, the German-owned vessel that carried a massive cache of Iranian-supplied rockets and weapons and was headed for Tehran's proxy militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and its allies in Syria.

To compound the gap between Merkel's rhetoric and the flourishing German-Iranian relationship (nearly 4 billion euros of trade in 2008), in early October, the Hansa India, sailing under a German flag and owned by the Hamburg-based Leonhardt and Blumberg company, was confiscated in the Red Sea by the U.S. Navy for unlawfully transporting ammunition to Syria and Hezbollah.

The Francop seizure--40 containers filled with 300 tons of weapons and rockets--represents, according to Israel's navy chief Brigadier General Rani Ben-Yehuda, an arsenal capable of sustaining a Hezbollah war against Israel for at least a month. That the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) chartered the Hansa India, and the Francop sailed from Iran with cargo listing IRISL, should not have surprised German authorities. The Bush administration designated IRISL in September 2008 as a criminal entity involved in unlawful arms trafficking, including equipment that is integral to Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program. For the same reason, the United Kingdom banned trade with IRISL in early October.