The ink was barely dry on the international agreement to drop sanctions against Iran before a top German official led a delegation of business leaders to Tehran to drum up business, leading to criticism from Jewish leaders and the German press.
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s trip to Tehran last month in an apparent effort to re-establish Germany as Iran’s primary trading partner in Europe. But while it was aimed at drawing billion-dollar contracts for top German companies, it first drew criticism as coming too soon.
“It is somewhat irritating that Germany’s vice chancellor and economics minister waited only five days before flying to Teheran with a delegation of German business leaders,” said Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress.
Gabriel, who is also head of Germany’s left-leaning Social Democrats, a coalition partner with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, said it was important that Iran improve ties with Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist. It’s unlikely there will be any opposition to the accord with Iran in the German parliament.
Also denouncing the trip is Deirdre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, who said the renewal of trade creates a more robust Iranian economy. She warned that the result will be “increased support for terrorist organizations and militias, expansion of (Iran’s) nuclear energy and missile programs, and entrenchment of a repressive police state that executes hundreds of people each year.”
Berger observed that Iranians appreciate sophisticated German technology. “No one builds better industrial products… than the Germans,” she said.
Another critic of Gabriel’s trip is “Stop the Bomb,” a Berlin-based advocacy group that is staunchly pro-Israel.
"It is scandalous that Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is the first high-ranking politician who visited Iran with a trade delegation aiming to increase German exports after the bad nuclear deal,” said Michael Spaney, executive director of “Stop the Bomb.”
Germany has historically played a major role in the maintenance and expansion of the Iranian economy. According to the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, two thirds of Iranian industry uses German machines. German equipment and technology are used for mining, drilling, and liquefying natural gas. Liquefied natural gas enables Iran to ship fuel to world markets and generate income.
German businessmen are gleeful about the prospects for renewed trade with Iran after sanctions are lifted. “Today is a very good day for us, a day we have been waiting for years,” said Michael Tockuss, chief executive of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce. “Airlines flying to Iran have been full of German businessmen for weeks, or months,” he added.
But Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank, warned of the downside of trade with Iran. An authority on German-Iranian trade, he said that Iran is after equipment and technology that could be used for military, as well as, peaceful purposes.
Ottolenghi gave this example:
In 2002, the Iranians were trying to buy machines from a German company that made cylinders for hybrid cars. But the machines could also be used to make fuel tanks for missiles. The German government blocked the sale of the machines. The Iranians then bought the factory and sent engineers from Teheran to acquire the technology. When German authorities discovered the plant had been bought by what Ottolenghi alleges was “a web of front companies that were traced back to the Supreme Leader and his business empire,” the plant was placed on the sanctions list.
According to Ottolenghi, there are numerous Iranian government-owned companies with subsidiaries in Germany. Most usually, Iranians who hold both German and Iranian passports run these companies.
Germany’s most respected newspaper has also raised questions about Gabriel’s recent visit to Iran. The Frankfurter Allegemeine called this a “rash” visit that gives the Iranian government the message that European governments are dazzled by the economic prospects.
Indeed, German industry associations estimate exports to Iran could quadruple within a few years. But the Frankfurter Allegemeine notes that these economic prospects leave European governments blind to the regional consequences of a strengthened Iran when the sanctions are lifted.
Donald Snyder was a news producer at NBC for 27 years and has been a freelance writer since his retirement. He specializes in Germany and Eastern Europe.