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Angela Merkel’s Ugly Romance With the Iranian Regime

Why Germany seeks to increase trade with a murderous theocracy bent on Israel’s destruction

Benjamin Weinthal
September 26, 2018
Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

In a remarkable comment that was ignored by the German media last month, the president of the country’s roughly 100,000-member Central Council of Jews suggested that Germany has failed to internalize the lessons of the Holocaust. According to Dr. Josef Schuster, Angela Merkel’s flourishing trade with a regime in Tehran that is both the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world and also the world’s top sponsor of lethal anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, is incompatible with the spirit of the Federal Republic’s own foundational commitments, and with the laws of a country where Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

To understand Schuster’s frustration and disappointment with German society, it is worth citing his critique: “It seems paradoxical that Germany—as a country that is said to have learned from its horrendous past and which has a strong commitment to fight anti-Semitism—is one of the strongest economic partners of a regime [Tehran] that is blatantly denying the Holocaust and abusing human rights on a daily basis. Besides, Germany has included Israel’s security as a part of its raison d’être. As a matter of course this should exclude doing business with a fanatic dictatorship that is calling for Israel’s destruction, pursuing nuclear weapons and financing terror organizations around the world.”

Schuster called for “an immediate halt to any economic relations with Iran. Any trade with Iran means a benefit for radical and terrorist forces, and a hazard and destabilization for the region.”

Yet Merkel, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, of the Social Democratic Party, rejected Schuster’s plea, and are now working overtime to circumvent U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Maas, who claimed earlier this year that he entered politics “because of Auschwitz,” argued for an alternative method to facilitate financial transfers to the radical clerical regime in Tehran, to bypass a United States plan to re-institute the ban on Iran’s use of the SWIFT system.

The moral and economic danger represented by Merkel’s emergence as Iran’s major champion in Europe has been a kind of secret that dare not speak its name in the media and among the chattering classes in the Federal Republic. A rare exception in a country that does not have the Anglo-American tradition of aggressive investigative reporting was the BILD newspaper’s exposé on a German company that sold material to merchants based in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. The components were later found in Iranian-produced rockets that contained chemicals used to gas Syrian civilians in January and February of 2018.

The rockets caused 21 Syrian children and adults to be poisoned. Germany’s export control agency told this writer that it will not bar the sale of such material in the future as a “dual-use” good that can be used for military and civilian purposes. The Krempel company that sold the material continues to do business with Iran and has a distribution center in the United States.

So what animates Germany’s devotion to Iran’s murderous regime, and its lack of solidarity—in both words and practice—with Israel? Economic interests are certainly front and center. Germany exported $3.42 billion in merchandise to Iran in 2017. Economic analysts said shortly after the 2015 nuclear deal was reached that German-Iranian trade could soon surpass $10 billion per year. Approximately 120 German companies operate inside the Islamic Republic, and 10,000 German businesses conduct trade with Iran. It should be noted that the German government not only rejects U.S. sanctions but also provides state credit guarantees to German companies that do business in the Islamic Republic, as means of facilitating German trade with Iran.

After Maas visited Auschwitz in August, he declared in a series of didactic statements that “We need this place because our responsibility never ends.” One of Germany’s most popular journalists, the Jewish author Henryk M. Broder, then asked Maas in an article, “Does it belong to the never-ending responsibility that the [German] federal government follows the law requiring German firms to oppose U.S. sanctions against Iran?”


While Angela Merkel’s appeasement policy toward the Iranian regime has come into sharp focus over the past few years, it began at least a decade ago. In 2008, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of the Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights, denied the Holocaust and called for the obliteration of Israel during a German foreign ministry-sponsored event held close to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Then-Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who is now the German president, did not strongly rebuke Larijani and no criminal charges were filed against the revolutionary Islamist.

Larijani’s brother Ali—the speaker of Iran’s phony parliament, the Majlis, and a former lead negotiator for Tehran’s nuclear team—caused outrage a year later when he said at the prestigious Munich Security Conference that his country has “different perspectives on the Holocaust.” When Pierre Lellouche, a French legislator, told Ali Larijani it was unlawful to deny the crimes of the Holocaust, Larijani’s answer was: “In Iran we don’t have the same sensitivities.”

Opponents of prosecuting the Larijani brothers in Germany for incitement against Jews argue that they are protected by diplomatic immunity. Yet local prosecutors in Berlin and Munich did not even investigate the alleged incitement.

In sharp contrast to the tolerance for Iranian genocidal anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial within Germany’s borders, Merkel in 2009 called on then-Pope Benedict to “clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial” that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews. Merkel’s condemnation was prompted by the British Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson’s Holocaust denial. In an interview with Swedish television conducted in Germany in November 2008, Williamson had said, “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler,” and, “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them in gas chambers.” A German court fined Williamson 12,000 euros in October 2009 for his claim that the mass extermination of Jews did not take place. (The fine was subsequently reduced on appeal.)

Yet Merkel has made no similarly explicit demand of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that he reject Holocaust denial and lethal anti-Semitism. Rather, she merely opines, using language perhaps more befitting union-management negotiations, that language used by Khamenei and other regime figures who deny the Holocaust and call for the dismantling of Israel is “unacceptable.”

The mainstreaming of Iran’s mullah regime by the Merkel administration has moved at an astonishingly fast pace since world powers reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the formal name for the Iran nuclear agreement—with Tehran in July 2015. Mere days after the atomic accord was signed, the then-German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel flew to Tehran with a large business delegation to pursue deals with the Islamic Republic. A year later, the Social Democrat Gabriel, who has repeatedly termed Israel an “apartheid regime,” traveled to Iran with another delegation of German industrialists.

The following year, in 2017, Gabriel welcomed to the foreign ministry a leading Iranian cleric who has advocated at the annual al-Quds Day rally in Berlin for the elimination of the Jewish state. The religious fanatic Hamidreza Torabi is widely considered the long arm of Ali Khamenei in Germany. Torabi directs the Islamic Academy of Germany that is part of the Islamic Center of Hamburg. The institutions are owned by the Iranian regime along with the Blue Mosque in Hamburg.

To fathom the chasm between Merkel’s rhetoric about Germany’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and support for Israel—Merkel, in an address to Israel’s Knesset, declared that the security of the Jewish state is “non-negotiable” for her country, and will visit Israel again in October—consider the case of Canada, which does not have a so-called “special relationship” with Israel. Yet Canada terminated its diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran and has not re-established relations.

Some of the concrete punitive measures Berlin could impose on the Islamic Republic to show solidarity with its purported ally Israel include: withdrawing Germany’s ambassador from Tehran; expelling Iran’s ambassador from Germany; announcing a break in German-Iran diplomatic relations; curtailing the robust German-Iranian trade; outlawing all of Hezbollah (there are an estimated 950 active Hezbollah operatives in Germany), and sanctioning Iranian officials.

Yet within the Federal Republic, the leading opponent of German trade with Iran is the American ambassador, Richard Grenell—a Republican who spearheaded the campaign that prevented the Deutsche Bundesbank—the central bank—from delivering, via the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade Bank, an estimated $400 million in cash to Tehran. The Iranians wanted the money ahead of new U.S. sanctions soon to be imposed, to bypass the crackdown on their financial sector. Grenell announced in the spring on his popular Twitter feed that German businesses should wind down business with Iran, reiterating the U.S. government’s policy—for which he was angrily slammed as undiplomatic.


As shown by Maas’ memorial tour of concentration camps, and frequent invocations of the “lessons of the Holocaust,” it would appear that memorializing the Holocaust can be a way for German politicians to inoculate themselves against criticism for their unwillingness to confront the lethal anti-Semitic Islamic regime in Tehran. Moreover, the Holocaust commemoration process leads many Germans to believe they are actually on the side of the Jewish state, when their government is not.

The German society’s so-called “working through of its past” can also culminate in large numbers of Germans, to paraphrase the writer Wolfgang Pohrt, behaving as Israel’s probation officers, acting on the highest moral grounds to stop “their victims” from recidivism. This form of morality-animated anti-Semitism is quite widespread in the Federal Republic, where a recent government-commissioned anti-Semitism report revealed that 40 percent of Germans across the political spectrum hold anti-Semitic attitudes. The German journalist Eike Geisel (1945-1997) captured one of the least discussed forms of anti-Semitism in his country.

“To be against Israel in the name of peace is something new,” Geisel wrote. “This new anti-Semitism does not arise from base instincts, nor is it the product of honorable political intentions. It is the morality of morons.”

Henryk Broder and Geisel played crucial roles in the 1980s and ’90s, in the German-speaking world, by dissecting the loathing of Israel as a result of incorrigible reactionary peace movements and widespread “guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism,” a term coined by the German Jewish philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s to capture the German reaction to the Shoah. In broad terms, Germans seek to purge the pathological guilt associated with the crimes of the National Socialists by blaming Jews for war crimes. The Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex, in a flash of biting historical sarcasm, reduced Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory to a single profound sentence: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.”

Today’s Germans, it seems, will never forgive Israel for the Holocaust. The preoccupation with turning Israel into a human punching bag expresses itself across all walks of life in Germany. The sociological forces unfolding in Germany do not portend even a semblance of a solid base of support for Israel. In contrast to the situation in the United States, where there are broad swaths of grassroot support for Israel that inform power politics, German support for Israel has been a project of the country’s political elite, which now seems preoccupied with increasing trade with a murderous theocracy bent on Israel’s destruction. The absorption of over one million Muslim refugees and economic migrants into German society, many of whom were socialized to despise Israel and Jews, adds to the already existing anti-Israel hysteria in the country.

As for the roughly 100,000 members of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, it is hard to imagine how their future is likely to get brighter.


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Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and reports on Germany for The Jerusalem Post. His Twitter feed is @BenWeinthal.