November 1, 2018 | Policy Brief

Merkel Pivots Further toward Iran at the Expense of Saudi Arabia

November 1, 2018 | Policy Brief

Merkel Pivots Further toward Iran at the Expense of Saudi Arabia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel froze military sales to Saudi Arabia last week in response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “As long as it’s [the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death] not cleared up, there will be no arms exports to Saudi Arabia. I assure you of that decidedly,” she said.  While Merkel seeks to hold the kingdom accountable for Khashoggi’s murder, she is turning a blind eye to equally grave abuses by Iran.

Germany does not sell arms to Iran, but the Merkel administration still permits the sale of dual-use technology that Tehran puts to use on the battlefield. In fact, parts from a German company turned up in Iranian-made chemical rockets that the Bashar al-Assad regime used to gas 21 Syrian children and adults in early 2018. Merkel remained mum on the poison gas attack conducted with “Made in Germany” technology.

Germany’s defense exports to Saudi Arabia are worth $462 million. A cut-off would likely benefit the Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition. Iran has supplied the Houthis with ballistic missiles, which they continue to launch at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.

Tensions between Berlin and Riyadh over the war in Yemen emerged earlier this year when Saudi Arabia imposed a freeze on awarding government contracts to German companies due to then-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s accusation that the kingdom’s foreign policy constituted “political adventurism.”

Detlef Daues, a German businessman with deep commercial ties to Saudi Arabia, said Gabriel’s statement “deeply offended” Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who withdrew Riyadh’s ambassador from Berlin. Less than a week before Khashoggi’s murder on October 2, the current German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, apologized to Saudi Arabia.

Merkel’s Iran policy has also not made ties with Riyadh any easier. Germany has refused to work with Washington to re-impose sanctions on Iran. Indeed, Merkel is determined to avoid giving any offense to Iran that may provoke its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, which U.S. President Donald Trump exited in May 2015, citing a wide range of Iranian malign behavior.

While the chancellor believes that her policies favor nuclear nonproliferation and stability in the Middle East, they are viewed by the Saudis and other Middle Eastern states as policies that favor Iran. Holding Riyadh accountable for the Khashoggi murder is certainly laudable. But the move will ring hollow among Arab states if Berlin neglects to hold Tehran to account, as well.

Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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