BERLIN – Israel’s public rebuke of Germany’s pro-Iranian behavior constitutes a dramatic break in diplomatic protocol between the two countries, which usually settle their differences quietly and behind the scenes. The revelation that the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA) had given the green light to a 100 million-plus-euro deal that would have the German engineering firm Steiner Prematechnik Gastec build Iran three plants for converting natural gas to liquid fuel, prompted Israel’s Foreign Ministry to issue an unprecedented, scathing indictment of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration.
The deal had been orchestrated by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) undersecretary in the Economics Ministry, Hartmut Schauerte, who spilled the beans when he openly bragged to a local newspaper in Siegen, a city in his electoral district, about how his “pesky” pressure at the ministry helped nail the deal for the Siegen-based Steiner.
Israeli diplomats’ growing frustration over Germany’s continued undercutting of the international effort to pressure Iran to end its nuclear enrichment program was most evident when MFA Director General Aaron Abramovich charged the Germans with invoking soggy excuses to justify the deal’s legality. “We told them, gentlemen, it’s not just a question of whether these or other sanctions formally apply. There should be an intent, especially on the part of a leading country in Europe like Germany, to end all commercial dealings with Iran,” Abramovich explained to Israel Radio last week.
As I tried during the course of the week to get straight answers to my questions on the subject, it became clear that politicians across the party spectrum are reticent about addressing the Iranian shadow that has fallen across the German-Israeli “special relationship” – a covenant supposedly based on Germany’s responsibility toward Israel, in view of the Holocaust and the two countries’ shared democratic values.
A shift in Germany’s Iran policy is clearly under way. In 2007, when Merkel learned of a firm’s plan to build a high-speed railway in Iran, she said: “I consider German assistance in the construction of the Transrapid, in a country whose president constantly announces that he wants to destroy Israel, to be completely unacceptable.” The Merkel of 2008, in contrast, seems less and less likely to rein in German firms that are strengthening Israel’s number one enemy. A few days after news of the gas-technology deal broke, she was suggesting not that it be scotched but only that future deals be reconsidered: “The government is expecting some sensitivity from businesses,” said her spokesman in Berlin, in a half-hearted effort to engage in damage control. A few days later, when I asked a cabinet spokeswoman why Merkel intervened to block the Transrapid deal, but was now retreating from a confrontational approach, she declined to comment. Might it be that the chancellor, who faces an election contest in 2009, is currying favor with the German business sector, a traditional base of CDU support?
Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has remained surprisingly quiet on the political sidelines. Perhaps that’s because Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is embroiled in his own pro-Iran scandal, having invited and funded former Iranian deputy foreign minister Muhammad Javad Ardashir Larijani to speak at a conference in Berlin in late June. Larijani, speaking in the government district, not far from Berlin’s memorial to the Holocaust, denied that event, and called for the “Zionist project” to be “canceled.”
When I tracked down the SPD’s foreign-policy spokesman, MP Gert Weisskirchen, he told me that the gas deal “should be stopped,” adding vaguely that he wants to pursue a parliamentary inquiry into the subject.
Germany’s Left Party, the country’s third largest, remained, like the SPD, inert during the initial whirlwind of criticism of the deal. Jan Korte, a Left MP who serves on the executive committee of the German-Israeli parliamentary group, would only go so far as to say that, “We are demanding a clear explanation about whether State Secretary Hartmut Schauerte became involved as a lobbyist for a liquid gas deal between a German firm and Iran.” He also said his faction would “work to obtain a thorough check and upgrade of the system of export controls,” adding that, “No business between German firms and Iran may be linked with any threat to Israel.”
The relative indifference of the political echelon to the gas deal might be termed the post-scandal scandal. It took almost two weeks, for example, for the SPD and the Left Party to voice their namby-pamby criticisms of the contract with Iran. And then, they spoke out only because a journalist who covers Israeli issues in Germany sought crystal-clear answers regarding the meaning of the special relationship.
Little wonder that critics at home, as well as in Israel and the United States, are starting to question the sincerity of Merkel’s much-praised speech in the Knesset in March, in which she asserted that the preservation of the Jewish state is one of Germany’s national security interests. In fact, the number of government-approved applications to conduct trade with Iran according to the German regulatory agency BAFA had grown by 63 percent in the first half of 2008, as compared with 2007, with the actual volume of trade growing by 13.6 percent in the first quarter alone. Thus far a total of 1,926 business deals were given the green light. BAFA refuses to state the nature of the commercial activity or identify the firms involved. How many additional natural gas-to-liquid fuel transactions took place remains a government trade secret.
As a reporter who writes for the Israeli press, I have no trouble eliciting proclamations from German politicians asserting that Israel has a right to exist. But isn’t that a sentiment it should be possible to take for granted? That international media reporting and Israeli political anger were required before Chancellor Merkel was willing to grudgingly express displeasure about the liquid gas contract, illustrates the tenuous nature of German-Israeli relations. Depressing as this may sound, Germany still lacks a homegrown national consciousness that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable,” to quote Merkel’s Knesset speech.
Internal German political and civil society pressure to draft and enact legislation to radically restrict German trade relations with Iran would fill the “special relationship” with genuine meaning.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based independent journalist.