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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Germany and a Nuclear Iran

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Iran, Israeli Security
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 26, Numbers 1–2


Contemporary Germany is personified by Chancellor Angela Merkel. In her famous address to Israel’s Knesset in March 2008, she declared that she would not refrain from “using additional, tougher sanctions to convince Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Merkel added: “If we Europeans were to shrink from tougher sanctions, we would have neither understood our historical responsibilities nor developed an awareness of the challenges of our time.”1 However, during a visit to Berlin shortly before Chancellor Merkel’s speech, Israeli writer, Yossi Klein Halevi observed another, more subtle aspect of German policy toward Iran. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Klein Halevi remarked:

Everywhere our panel appeared [in the course of a European tour] we met opinion makers who understood that the greatest threat to world peace was a nuclear Iran. Everywhere, that is, but Berlin. There, government officials spoke of giving the Iranians one more chance to prove their peaceful intentions. When I raised the possibility that at least part of the Iranian leadership holds apocalyptic religious beliefs that could encourage a nuclear strike against Israel,…I was dismissed as an alarmist. One senior German politician declared that a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be the worst of all scenarios—worse, even, than nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to launch another holocaust against Israel.… In Berlin, it seemed to me that afternoon, the decision had already been made to learn to live with the Iranian bomb.2

Indeed, nearly every influential foreign policy advisor in Germany has recommended acceptance of the Iranian bomb, as shown by the following remarks: Christoph Bertram, former director of the German Institute for International

and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), an important think tank, maintains: “A useable nuclear bomb would…not be a strategic disaster for Germany and Europe, for the region and the world.”3 The current director, Volker Perthes, asserts: “An Iranian nuclear bomb…would not be an ‘Islamic bomb,’ but an instrument for the defense of the Islamic Republic’s national interests.”4 And, former director of the German Oriental Institute, Udo Steinbach, remarks: “If Iran in the foreseeable future were to have nuclear weapons, it is not ipso facto therefore a threat.”5 Similarly, Eberhard Sandschneider, head of the research institute of the German Council of Foreign Affairs, states: “Iran will become a nuclear power. The West won’t be able to prevent this.”6 Finally, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States and currently the chairman of the Munich Security Conference notes: “The time has come to dispel a taboo and to put up with Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. If it was possible to successfully deter the vast Soviet Union, then this will probably be possible with regard to Iran.”7

The above assertions confirm Klein Halevi’s correct impression that a majority within the German foreign policy establishment have come to terms with the inevitability of an Iranian bomb. Merkel’s pronouncements may be interpreted differently abroad than they are in Germany, where they often are rejected. This ambiguity affects Germany’s role within the P5 +1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany), which oversees international diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program.


Germany differs from the other five powers in two respects. First, Germany is the only non-nuclear weapon state among them. In other words, Germany and Iran are in the same category of “have-not”—states without nuclear weapons— while the United States and the other veto-wielding powers on the UN Security Council are all “haves.” This represents a conflict of interest between Germany and the five powers. While nuclear-weapon states seek to maintain their privilege, certain “have-nots” want to minimize that privilege as much as possible. This may be accomplished if the “haves” become more like the “have-nots” by reducing their nuclear arsenals, or the “have-nots” become more like the “haves” by expanding their “peaceful” nuclear programs to the point where they obtain a “nuclear option,” i.e., become a potential nuclear power. Both Germany and Iran share an interest in interpreting the Non-Proliferation Treaty in a way that enables the nuclear option. Therefore, Germany always has been in favor of granting Iran the right to enrich uranium.8  The latter marks a major difference between Germany and the Western powers in the P5+1.

There is, however, another, even more important distinction: Germany has by far the strongest traditional and commercial ties with Iran. We cannot understand this special relationship without a brief historical overview, as follows.


Germany and Persia have cooperated in several endeavors since the early twentieth century. Although it had to seek technical assistance from abroad, Persia needed Germany because it did not trust the other great powers. Likewise, Germany needed Iran because it was the only country that was rich in raw materials, but was not conquered by the European powers in their struggle for colonies during the nineteenth century. These mutual interests resulted in an unparalleled level of cooperation between a Christian and a Muslim country. Moreover, since World War I, both Germany and Persia were fighting against the same enemies: Russia and the British Empire, and later, America and the “Zionists” or Jews. In addition, Germans were sought after as technicians and engineers. In the mid­1920s, Germany was the founder of the nascent Persian industry, providing it with the backbone of its industrial infrastructure and its trained personnel. A 1942 report from the U.S. Embassy enviously related that “every Iranian merchant was frequently invited to the German Legation, where he met influential members of the German colony.”9 Furthermore, “every request from the Persians was energetically examined at the legation. Every technical aspect of the problem of providing the Persians with what they wanted in the form they wanted it was dealt with.”10

German-Iranian relations flourished until the occupation of Iran by the Soviet Union and Great Britain in August 1941. Hundreds of German technicians, advisors, teachers, professors and tradesmen flooded into Iran. German managers ran the harbors, the telephone and telegraph networks and the hydroelectric power stations. They controlled the operation of the Trans-Iranian Railway and oversaw the training of large numbers of Iranian railway workers and engineers. Thus, between 1933 and 1941 the German share of Iranian imports increased from 11 to 43 percent, while the German share of Iranian exports rose from 19 to 47 percent.11 After World War II, there was a revival of German-Iranian trade. By 1952, West Germany overtook the United States and became Iran’s major trading partner. It retained this position until 1972 and was only overtaken by the United States until 1979.

While Germany stood resolutely by the Shah until the bitter end of his reign, its trade with Khomeini’s Iran again increased from 2.8 billion DM in 1980 to 7.7 billion DM in 1983. According to Der Spiegel, “it is striking to see how Persia’s new rulers are specially favoring German firms with orders, given that German business leaders and politicians had kowtowed to the Shah with special fervor.”12 Since then, Germany remains Iran’s most important and most trusted partner in the field of high-tech.

According to the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Tehran, two-thirds of Iranian industrial enterprises and three-quarters of its small and medium-sized firms use machines and systems of German origin.13 As Berlin’s Federal Agency for Foreign Trade confirmed in 2007, Germany continued to be Iran’s chief supplier of almost all types of machinery, apart from power systems and construction, where Italian manufacturers dominated the market.14 As late as 2008, more than 7,150 Iranian companies visited trade fairs in Germany “in order to find out about new technologies and products” according to the Chamber’s home page in January 2010. Former president of the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Michael Tockuss remarked that the Iranians were totally dependent upon German suppliers and spare parts that could not easily be replaced by Russia or China.15 In 2012, Germany exported goods worth $3.15 billion to Iran—nearly one-third (31.5 percent) of all the exports of the 27 EU countries.16 This figure does not include deals via third-party states such as Turkey or the United Arab Emirates.

Thus, Salman Rushdie’s questions of 1996 are still valid today: “Germany has more economic ties to Iran than any other European state. I have to ask myself, why is that? Why is there this truly passionate support for this regime in your country?”17 The first and standard response is economic interests. However, the Iranian share of total German exports since 1980 has never been more than a miniscule 0.6 percent.18 Yet, German industrialists do not want to disrupt their special commercial relationship with Iran. They hope to survive the current “crisis” as they have done in the past. The second answer is geopolitical interests. Kinan Jaeger, who taught at the University of Bonn, explained the rationale behind this approach: “Anyone who is capable of bringing Iran over to its side is not only ‘set up for life’ as far as energy logistics are concerned, but could also face the U.S. in a different way.” Through the “attainment of an atom bomb, [Iran would] become a hegemonic power in the Gulf and would be capable of confronting the U.S. in the Gulf region more or less ‘as an equal.’”19 Both the economic and geopolitical approaches share a readiness to view Iranian policies—the nuclear weapons program, Holocaust denial, the appalling human rights situation and terrorist activities—through rose-colored glasses.


An additional feature of German-Iranian relations is the acceptance of a concept of friendship that is tainted by the Nazi past. Christiane Hoffmann, Tehran

correspondent for the German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1999– 2004, notes that (Iranian) people are constantly “throwing their arms around you in tribute to the ‘common Aryan heritage.’”20 She also mentions the “unconcealed admiration of many Iranians for Hitler” and the emphasis on the positive German-Iranian cooperation during the Nazi period.21 So-called moderates such as former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani still praise the “strategic alliance” between Nazi Germany and Iran as a model for the future. In their opinion, Iran was occupied by the Soviet Union and the British Empire in 1941. The same countries occupied Germany in 1945. After the “liberation” of Iran in 1979 and the “liberation” of Germany in 1989, both nations are supposed to revive the alliance that was interrupted in 1941. For example, in 2006, Rafsanjani wrote:

With the collapse of the strategic alliance between the two countries during the Second World War…the Allies were able to divide Germany into eastern and western parts.…During the same period, Iran was also technically under the influence of foreign powers.…The reunification of East and West Germany into a sovereign, politically independent Germany in 1990…provided leaders of both countries with a suitable opportunity to take steps toward the revival of historical ties and the adoption of a new diplomatic approach.22

Such thinking neither harms nor reduces Germany’s interest in Iran.

Thus, the German position within the P5+1 shows that its special character derives both from the fact that Germany does not have nuclear weapons and that it is a traditional ally of Iran. Berlin has always complied with the international policy of sanctions on Iran, which traditionally has been to impose as few sanctions as possible but as many as are strictly necessary to keep the American administration in the diplomatic game or to avoid an Israeli military attack. Volker Perthes explains: “All our efforts with regard to sanctions are made with the clear intention to avoid a military strike.”23


How has the United States regarded the policy of its close ally, Germany, toward Iran?

The German-American conflict over Iran was first made public in November 1992 at a G-7 conference in Munich when the German delegation refused to support a U.S.-initiated resolution critical of Iran. The Americans protested vehemently.24 By 1995, it became apparent that a unified Western approach was out of the question. Accordingly, Washington pressed forward with unilateral measures, and President Bill Clinton prohibited American firms from trading with Iran. The American effort to impose sanctions, however, was undermined by an intensified German export drive. In his memoirs, Iran’s former ambassador to Germany, Hossein Mousavian, recalls:

Iranian decision-makers were well aware in the 1990s of Germany’s significant role in breaking the economic chains with which the United States had surrounded Iran.… Iran viewed its dialogue and relations with Germany as an important means toward the circumvention of the anti-Iranian policies of the United States.25

In 1996, Clinton further toughened his stance by signing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act into law. This piece of legislation permitted the United States to boycott firms based in foreign countries that were heavily involved with the Iranian oil and gas industries. The threat of sanctions had an impact upon Germany as well. In response, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel flew to the United States where he warned that Europe would respond with sharp retaliatory measures if such sanctions were imposed.26 Two weeks later, Chancellor Helmut Kohl also flew to the United States in order to support this threat further. At the conclusion of the Kohl-Clinton summit, President Clinton retreated, promising that he wished to apply the laws in a way that did not harm “our partners.”27 Although the new sanctions law had lost its teeth, the U.S. persisted. As former Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote in his memoirs:

We constantly prodded them [the Germans] to distance themselves from Iran and to suspend trade, as we had done… Unfortunately, the struggle to stop our allies from doing business with Iran has not yet succeeded.28


In 2003, it became common knowledge that Tehran had been operating a clandestine nuclear program for some eighteen years in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States pressed for the matter to be referred to the UN Security Council. However, in October 2003, despite major reservations on the part of the Bush administration, the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany went to Tehran in order to “recognize the right of Iran to enjoy peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”29 In return, the Iranian regime agreed to make two pseudo-concessions: it signed a new oversight treaty with the IAEA—without ever ratifying it—and voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment for a few weeks. These diplomatic niceties were matched by economic ones. Instead of immediately ending transfers of technology to Iran, following the discovery of Iran’s secret nuclear facilities, European exports to Iran rose 29 percent to €12.9 billion between 2003 and 2005. In the meantime, German exports to Iran increased by 20 percent in 2003 and another 33 percent in 2004.

Between November 2003 and March 2006, the EU managed to prevent discussion of the issue of Iran’s nuclear facilities and activities at the UN Security Council. The Iranian regime used those 28 months to develop its nuclear facilities at a rapid pace. Germany’s foreign minister at the time, Joschka Fischer, found a remarkable expression to describe the parallel activism of Iran and the Europeans: “We Europeans have always advised our Iranian partners that it is in their considered self-interest to regard us as a protective shield.”30

2006–2007: NEW ALLIANCES

Nonetheless, in December 2006, American diplomacy achieved an important success with the unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1737 which called on Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and plutonium projects without delay and classified Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to international peace. At the same time, the resolution placed sanctions on the Iranian regime. For the first time, the resolution threatened to use additional pressure under Article 41, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, should Tehran fail to comply with international demands. Shortly after the passage of Resolution 1737, Washington and Berlin offered conflicting interpretations about its meaning. The New York Times reported that Britain also was involved in these efforts, and France, to a lesser degree, while Germany, with far more business interests in Iran, was not “quite as eager.”31 The sixty-day period set by the Security Council for the Iranians to meet the UN demands ran out at the end of February 2007. Iran did not budge. At this point, everything depended upon how the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany would react to its intransigence. Would they back off, thus undermining the credibility of the United Nations? Or, would they do what Resolution 1737 required, and “adopt further appropriate measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations” in order to persuade Iran to comply with this resolution and the requirements of the IAEA? It did not take long to resolve this issue. The United States, France and Britain advocated stronger sanctions against Iran, while Russia, China and Germany rejected a punitive response.

A P5+1 meeting in London ended without agreement. In March 2007, discussions resumed in New York, but again without success. Three video conferences that followed failed to produce an agreement. At the end of March, after an additional two weeks of negotiations, a new resolution was agreed upon and passed unanimously by the Security Council. These new measures, however, added little substance. In September 2007, the divergent interests of the six powers again clashed at another meeting. While the United States, Britain and France pressed for a third Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions, Germany rejected the proposal.32 According to the New York Times, the three Western powers—the United States, France and Britain—only reluctantly agreed to a further postponement of the UN sanctions issue until November 2007. The delay was a concession to Russia, China and Germany.33

International sanctions came to a temporary halt when U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama announced that if he won the election in 2008, he would enter into negotiations with Iran without preconditions. The Obama administration’s new Iranian policy was greeted with relief in Berlin. Johannes Reissner, a leading German Iran expert, noted that his readiness to talk with Tehran made it easier for Germany to “defend itself against the charge of appeasement and maintain its basic position of the non-exclusion of Iran.”34 A burst of activity followed, beginning in February 2009, with a four-day visit to Iran by former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It featured a public handshake and a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Schröder’s sensational visit to Tehran, however, was an exception: “Keep your connections but bow your head until the storm is over” was the general German strategy throughout Ahmadinejad’s tenure. The election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 and the Geneva Agreement of November 2013 was perceived as a clear confirmation of this course of action.


The German government termed the Geneva Agreement a “turning point” and proudly referred to the fact, “that the federal government and especially the foreign minister regularly [i.e., throughout Ahmadinejad’s term] maintained and cultivated a line of dialogue with Tehran, especially with Foreign Minister Salehi and acting Foreign Minister Zarif.” The speaker of the Foreign Office emphasized renewed German interest in cultivating and strengthening relations with Iran.35

“Rouhani personifies a new beginning,” declared Ambassador Paul Freiherr von Maltzahn, the secretary-general of the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “He can be labeled a liberal conservative… It would be wrong to follow the motto ‘keep all your options open’ because this includes the possibility of a military strike. Instead, we should keep all options open in another sense namely by avoiding negative signals that might spoil the prospect of a new beginning.” Here, Von Maltzahn is referring to another distinction between Germany and the three Western powers of the P5+1, namely its firm belief that nothing would be worse than a military attack.

Iranian analysts regard the German position positively. According to Davood Kiani, “Germany’s alignment with Russia and China regarding the position that solving Iran’s nuclear issue would only be possible through diplomatic means underscores Germany’s indirect opposition to the views expressed by some U.S. authorities on threatening Iran with use of force.”36 Thus, it was also Germany’s policy of excluding “armed diplomacy” and of delaying and weakening the sanctions regime that provided Iranian leaders with enough time and room for maneuver to complete the uranium path toward the bomb.

In her historic speech at the Knesset, Chancellor Merkel remarked: “We often say that Germany and Israel enjoy special, unique relations. But what does this mean exactly? Is my country cognizant of these words not only in speeches and public events, but also when it really matters?”

That remains to be seen.

* * *


1. The speech was published in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 19, 2008.
2. Yossi Klein Halevi, “Iran’s German Enablers,” Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2007.
3. Christoph Bertram, Partner, nicht Gegner. Für eine andere Iran-Politik [Ally, Not Adversary. In Favor of Another Policy toward Iran] (Berlin: Körber-Stiftung, 2008), 11.
4. Volker Perthes, Iran–Eine politische Herausforderung [Iran–A Political Challenge] (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2008), 110.
5. Udo Steinbach, “Europa ist auch von einem nuklear bewaffneten Iran nicht bedroht” [Europe Is Not Threatened by a Nuclear-Armed Iran], Eurasisches Magazin, April 30, 2007.
6. “Im Strategiestau” [Bottleneck in Strategy], Der Spiegel, September 28, 2009.
7. dts News Agency, “Sicherheitsexperte Ischinger warnt for Krieg mit dem Iran” [Security Expert Ischinger Warns of War with Iran], Finanznachrichten, January 30, 2012.
8. “Germany supports the right of any country to that [enrichment] activity as long as it is peaceful. But the other three nations at the table with Iran—the United States, Britain and France—continue to balk, at least for now.” See: George Jahn, “Nuclear Deal with Iran Comes Closer as Tehran Concedes on Right to Enrich,”, November 19, 2013.
9. Matthias Küntzel, Bonn & the Bomb: German Politics and the Nuclear Option (London: Pluto Press, 1995).
10. “Axis Propaganda in Iran. The Nazis.” National Archive, Washington, DC, Tehran, June 17, 1942. RG 84 Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State. Tehran Embassy General Records. 1942:820.2–851, Box 53.
11. Yair P. Hirschfeld, Deutschland und Iran im Spielfeld der Mächte (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1980), 330.
12. “Verblüffend gut,” Der Spiegel, February 13, 1984, 72.
13. “Wirtschaft drohen Milliardenverluste” [Economy Threatened by Losses of Billions], Focus-Online, interview with Michael Tockuss, February 12, 2006.
14. Bundesagentur für Außenwirtschaft und Verband Deutscher Maschinen und Anlagenbau e. V., Wachstumsmärkte im Nahen und Mittleren Osten [Growth Markets in the Middle East] (Cologne: Bundesagentur für Außenwirtschaft, 2007), 35, 73, 119, 151, 163, 187, 226.
15. “Wirtschaft drohen Milliardenverluste.”
16. Eurostat. DS-016890-EU28 Trade since 1988, by CN8.
17. “In uns allen ist Gewalt” [There Is Violence in All of Us], interview with Salman Rushdie, Der Spiegel, January 22, 1996, 154.
18. This figure dates from 2005 when German exports to Iran were at their peak (€4.4 billion). In the same year, Germany’s exports worldwide were €720 billion.
19. Kinan Jaeger and Silke Wiesneth, “Energiesicherheit für Europa. Geopolitische Implikationen” [Energy Safety for Europe. Geopolitical Implications], Der Mittler-Brief. Informationsdienst zur Sicherheitspolitik, 22, no. 3 (2007), 7.
20. Christiane Hoffmann, “Sympathie für den Satan?“ [Sympathy for Satan?], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 7, 2006.
21. Christiane Hoffmann, Hinter den Schleiern Irans. Einblicke in ein verborgenes Land [Behind the Iranian Veils. Insights into a Hidden Land] (Cologne: Dumont, 2008), 129.
22. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, “Foreword,” in: Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, Iran-Europe Relations (Milton Park: Routledge, 2008), VII.
23. Interview with Director Volker Perthes, “Iran–Krise gefährlich wie Kuba 1962” [Iran– Serious Crisis with Cuba 1962],, February 6, 2012.
24. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, Iran-Europe Relations, 66.
25. Ibid., 133.
26. Carola Kamps, “Kinkel warnt vor Wirtschaftskrieg” [Kinkel Warns of Economic War], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 10, 1996.
27. Claus Gennrich, “Amerika hat keinen besseren Freund in der Welt als Deutschland” [America Does Not Have a Better Friend in the World than Germany], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 25, 1996.
28. Warren Christopher, In the Stream of History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 442.
29. Excerpt from the text of a declaration agreed to by Iran and the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany: “Iran’s Pact: Full Cooperation,” New York Times, October 21, 2001.
30. German Press Office: Speech of Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer at the opening of the Ambassadors’ Conference in Berlin, September 6, 2004.
31. Helene Cooper and Steven R. Weisman, “West Tries a New Tack to Block Iran’s Nuclear Agenda,” New York Times, January 2, 2007.
32. Horst Bacia, “Reichlich offene Fragen” [Many Open Questions], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 22, 2007.
33. Helene Cooper, “Split in Group Delays Vote on Sanctions against Iran,” New York Times, September 29, 2007.
34. Johannes Reissner, “Iran,” in: Guido Steinberg, ed., Deutsche Nah-Mittelost und Nordafrikapolitik [German Middle East and North Africa Policy] (Berlin: SWP-Studien, 2009), 51–53.
35. Erklärungen des Sprechers des Auswärtigen Amts in der Bundespressekonferenz vom
25. November 2013 [The Foreign Office Spokesman’s Statements at the Federal Press Conference, November 25, 2013].
36. Davood Kiani, “Iran and Germany’s New Geopolitics,” Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, 3 (2012), 129.