The term “special relationship” often denotes the Anglo-American partnership that emerged in the wake of World War II. Yet, the phrase also describes the unique relationship between Germany and Iran—a relationship that stretches back more than a century and has profound implications for the future.
Evidence of Germany’s affinity for Iran—and vice versa—is abundant, if often ignored by press and policymakers alike. One notable exception is Benjamin Weinthal who, as the European Affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, has chronicled German-Iranian ties.
As Weinthal has documented, Berlin allows operatives from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese-based, U.S.-designated-terror group, to operate in Germany. As many as 950 Hezbollah members reside in the country and the group uses the German nation to “raise funds and recruit new members.” Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Hezbollah had murdered more Americans than any other terrorist organization. Nonetheless, Iran’s most powerful proxy has been allowed to operate on the soil of a NATO member.
The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused U.S. demands to designate all of Hezbollah as a terror group. Instead, Berlin has maintained the fiction that Hezbollah has a separate “political wing” and a “military wing”—ignoring that the two arms are part of the same beast.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has expanded its global presence; perpetrating and planning terror attacks from the Middle East to Europe and beyond. The group has fought in the Syrian civil war, serving Tehran’s aims by propping up dictator Bashar al-Assad. Once labeled the “A Team of terrorists” by then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Hezbollah’s external operations unit has conducted surveillance and planned attacks in the U.S. In 2007, for example, Iranian proxies planned to blow up the fuel tanks at JFK airport, but were thwarted by authorities.
In a widely underreported event, several U.S. intelligence officials and former White House officials testified before Congress on April 17, 2018 that “Iranian agents tied to the terror group Hezbollah” had been caught planning attacks and building networks in the United States. Iran had also plotted to carry out a June 30, 2018 terror attack on the soil of another charter NATO member, France, but was foiled once more.
From the Kaiser to Khamenei
Berlin—which relies extensively on the U.S. for its own security—has been unmoved. And history might offer an explanation.
As the German historian Matthias Küntzel detailed in his 2014 book, Germany and Iran: From the Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold, close ties between the two countries go back to the pre-World War I era.
In the late nineteenth century, Persian hopes for industrial development hinged on German know-how and technological prowess. Although a German-Persian friendship treaty was signed in 1873, it wasn’t until the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888 that relations truly progressed. The Kaiser’s plans to develop a Berlin to Baghdad railway were heavily dependent on Persia. Subsequently, “economic relations between the two countries began to expand swiftly” and “it became fashionable for young Persian intellectuals to be pro-German,” Küntzel notes.
The Kaiser sought to attract allies in the Middle East in his competition with Tsarist Russia and the United Kingdom. As part of his strategy, he hoped to “arouse the fanaticism of Islam” and “summon the Muslims of Asia, India, Egypt, and Africa to a holy war for the Caliphate”—and against his enemies.
Although the Kaiser’s hopes for a mass Muslim uprising didn’t come to fruition in the Great War, important seeds were planted. Persian officials who had looked to Germany for modernization were “taken aback by the German Empire’s sudden jihad mania.” Indeed, many Persian politicians did not embrace the Kaiser’s efforts. But many theocrats did.
Clerics in religious strongholds like Isfahan were persuaded by German officials to “strongly support the German policy and favorably influence the broad popular layers through” sermons in the mosque and “by directing his mullahs.” Several nomadic Persian tribes did take up arms on behalf of the Kaiser, driving English and Indian troops out of the Fars province and threatening British oil supplies.
Eventually, however, Tsarist troops reached Tehran and pro-German government officials were expelled from office or fled. Although World War I ended with the Kaiser’s defeat, German influence in Persia was given a foothold.
The immediate post-war period witnessed a lessening of Russian—now Soviet—influence in the Middle East and an expansion of that of Great Britain’s. Persia, however, continued to look to Germany as it sought to industrialize. In 1923, Reza Khan was named prime minister. By 1925, the former soldier and defense minister would be Shah (king), ending the Qajar dynasty (1797-1925).
As Küntzel recounts, Reza Khan, who once commanded guards at the German embassy, would act as the “most important promoter” of economic ties between the two nations. Leading Shi’ite clerics encouraged the Shah’s efforts.
The Persian State Bank was soon under the control of German bankers and “henceforth loans would be directed especially to firms that wanted to do business with Germany” and Berlin shortly became the chief supplier for wool, silk, paper, weapons, tobacco and chemicals.
Ties continued to increase with the rise of Adolf Hitler, who was even heralded as the Shi’ite Messiah in some Persian circles. The Nazis cultivated the Persian press, sent propaganda agents into the country and strengthened and increased economic relations. German technocrats continued to dominate certain industries and by 1938 Germany was Iran’s number-one trade partner for both exports and imports. The Nazis also aided Reza Khan’s attempts to modernize his military and infrastructure.
The Shah and the Mufti
With the outbreak of World War II, the concerns of the Allies with Reza Khan’s pro-German affinities only grew—and with good reason. Among other acts, Reza Khan welcomed Haj Amin al-Husseini, also known as “Hitler’s Mufti.”
Al-Husseini had, with the support of British authorities in Mandate Palestine, been named the Mufti, or chief Islamic cleric, of Jerusalem in 1921. He quickly turned on the British; inciting anti-Jewish violence, and plotting the murders of British officials and his Arab rivals. During the War, Al-Husseini helped recruit Waffen SS regiments in the Balkans and disseminated Nazi propaganda in the Arab world, among other acts. Indeed, shortly before arriving in Iran, al-Husseini had helped orchestrate a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq, which was quickly crushed—but not before 110 Iraqi Jews were murdered, several hundred injured, and thousands left homeless.
As David Dalin and John Rothmann document in their 2008 work, Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, al-Husseini used the Japanese embassy in Tehran “to incite anti-Jewish hatred and violence as he had done throughout much of his stay in Baghdad” resulting in “a large number of Iranian Jews” fleeing Tehran.
Providing safe haven to a Nazi collaborator might have been the straw that broke the camels back for Reza Khan. Four months after the Iranian ruler welcomed Hitler’s Mufti, he was deposed in a joint British-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, his son, was installed as the new Shah.
A role reversal for Berlin
Just as the rise of Nazi Germany didn’t impede relations with Iran, neither did the rise of another antisemitic authoritarian regime. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution saw the installment of a despotic theocracy—initially led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—in the formally secular government. From the beginning, the regime—like its Nazi precursor—sought the destruction of the Jewish people and was fiercely anti-Western.
Yet Germany, seemingly unbothered by Tehran’s objectives, has continued to display an unusual rapport with Iran.
In 1995, the U.S. prohibited American businesses from trading with Iran due to the Islamic Republic’s support for terror groups and its attempts to acquire nuclear weaponry. As Küntzel documents in Germany and Iran, the Clinton administration received little cooperation from Berlin. In return, the Iranians acknowledged their debt. Iran’s then-Ambassador to Germany, Hossein Mousavian, admitted: “Iran viewed its dialogue and relations with Germany as an important means toward the circumvention of the anti-Iranian policies of the United States.”
But Tehran’s gratitude did not prevent the Islamic Republic from carrying out assassinations on German soil. In one particularly infamous example, several Kurdish Iranian dissidents were assassinated in a Berlin eatery called Mykonos on Sept. 17, 1992. The subsequent trial, detailed in Roya Hakakian’s 2011 book, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, revealed that Iran’s Berlin embassy under Mousavian’s leadership, served as a “headquarters for a government intelligence gathering operation largely focused on the activities of the exiled [Iranian] opposition.” Those “with ties to Iran’s German embassy” were connected to the assassinations, which the court concluded was ordered by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other high-ranking regime apparatchiks, among them Hassan Rouhani, the country’s current president.
Iranian exiles residing in Germany, however, felt “a slowness or unwillingness to act on the part of German authorities,” as Marcus Wilford noted in the World Affairs Journal. The official German response was merely to recall its ambassador for consultation and expel four Iranian diplomats. In 2007, two of the Mykonos assassins were released early amid rumors that they were sent back to Tehran “in exchange for the release by Iran of a German tourist arrested in 2005 for illegally entering Iranian waters on a fishing trip.”
Berlin has continued to enable Iran. In 2004, Germany’s Ambassador to Iran, Paul Freiherr von Malzahn proudly told an Iranian daily newspaper that his country had run interference at the U.N. Security Council after the September 2002 revelations that Tehran had weapons-related nuclear centers in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As Küntzel notes, “official German policy has adhered to the letter of the U.N. and EU sanctions” that followed, however “the spirit of the German approach in this period—as few sanctions and as much trade as possible—has run counter to that of the United States.”
The Islamic Republic has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Israel. To that end, Tehran has supported antisemitic terror groups like Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, among others, and sought nuclear weapons. On several occasions Chancellor Merkel has spoken of the “shame” that the Holocaust brought upon Germany. Yet, Iran’s call for another mass genocide of Jews has seemingly left German policy unperturbed. In 2011, Germany’s then-Ambassador to Iran, Bernd Erbel, heralded “the friendship, trust and close ties” between the two countries. It was, he said, “a historical treasure that must be preserved.”
(Note: An abbreviated version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post on Aug. 29, 2018)