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Germany’s Unilateral Sanction against Itself and the Unspoken Moral of the Story

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently claimed at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Germany has always called for transparency and cooperation with Iran, but unfortunately Iran has not responded.  Merkel also made it clear that her government will pursue unilateral economic sanctions in case China blocks an otherwise unanimous Security Council plan for more sanctions against Iran.1

However, Jens Nagel, Managing Director of the Federation of German Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA), believes unilateral German sanctions against Iran to be totally incomprehensible because they will open Germany’s lucrative slice of the Iranian market to Asian and European competitors.  According to BGA President Anton F. Boerner, Germany could be the biggest loser of a unilateral sanction policy against Iran because it could lead to the loss of 10,000 German jobs, in mostly medium-sized German companies, many of them family-owned businesses which depend heavily on trade with Iran. 2  In other words, in a bizarre twist of political economy, Germany effectively will be unilaterally sanctioning itself.

So why bother?  Something greater than pure political economy is at stake here, namely morality, or so one may be led to believe.  However, discussing morality is a prerogative reserved exclusively for the Western powers — take for example President Carter’s human rights rhetoric, President Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and Vice President Biden’s recent conclusion that the Iranian leaders have “lost their moral credibility,”3 as well as Chancellor Merkel’s recent statement that Germany’s special relationship with Israel derives from Germany’s “shame” for the Holocaust. 4  How morally perverse, then, that Germany now seems to proclaim itself responsible for containing Iran’s allegedly “irresponsible” nuclear program on account of Germany’s special relationship with Israel due to the Holocaust and yet has expressed no similar moral obligation to the Iranian or Iraqi Kurdish people who suffered from Germany’s historical support of chemical weapons stretching back to the Iran-Iraq War and even to Auschwitz.

Germany was among the staunchest Western supporters of Saddam Hussein and his Act of Aggression against Iran in the 1980s.  The fact that German companies knowingly5 provided Saddam Hussein with essential components and technology to manufacture chemical weapons in Iraq’s Samarra and Al-Fallujah complexes is no secret.6  In fact, the relevant documentation of this has been widely circulated in the West (especially by the US and the UK), particularly while (1) reviewing and assessing the protective equipment of Coalition armies during the Second Gulf War of 1990-19917 and (2) justifying the 2003 preemptive attack on Iraq.  The human cost associated with these chemical recipes has been high: 5,000 were killed instantly in Halabja in 1988 and more than 10,000 have died since then from disease and related complications.  In moral terms, Germany’s role in this tragedy becomes even more complicated when one remembers that technology used by Saddam Hussein in Halabja and elsewhere during the Iran-Iraq War is in fact the progression and continuation of the same technology that had been used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  This begs the question: why is Germany ashamed of its past vis-à-vis the Jewish people but not the Iranian or Iraqi Kurdish people?  How is it morally consistent for Germany to cry for responsibility, transparency, and honesty regarding production and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world while failing to apply these same principles to itself?

The answer to this question may lie in Chancellor Merkel’s moral relativism.  Merkel wants to ensure that Germany “alters what is no longer beneficial for it and preserves what has taken it forward in the past decades.”8  In Iran, this attitude is called “naan be nerkh-e rooz khordan,” literally “to eat bread based on the daily rate,” which is to say, being an opportunist.  In more concrete terms, Merkel seems to think it is okay for Germany to ship chemical agents and technology to Iraq yesterday and then to impose economic sanctions against Iran today.  (However, Merkel does not seem to understand how to play the game in the interest of Germany itself: while German companies benefitted from the Samara and Al-Fallujah chemical deals yesterday, if she succumbs even further to the Israeli pressures and presses forward with unilateral sanctions against Iran now, German companies will suffer from the sanctions against Iran, rendering some 10,000 German employees arbeitslos.)

Germany’s example is indicative of the broader Western attitude towards Iran.  It seems to me that our world today is subjected to the same totalitarian supreme leadership, i.e. 5+1, that it pretends to criticize in Iran.  Where was the UN “Security” Council when Germany was shipping potential chemical weapons to Iraq?  In fact the US intelligence services merely informed Germany in the autumn of 1990 about the danger entailed in providing Saddam Hussein with poisonous gases.  The UN Security Council neither condemned nor punished Germany for that.  The German generosity towards Saddam Hussein in this case was so great that, by 1989, Iraq had become the biggest Middle Eastern producer of gases that could be used in warfare, receiving a considerable number of persistent requests from Third World countries that wanted to purchase Iraqi chemical weapons.

The Iranian people are still waiting for the West, especially for Germany, to acknowledge its role in assisting Saddam Hussein’s Act of Aggression against their country.  What they find instead is a stubborn effort to destroy Iran’s economy, undermine the sovereignty of its political regime, and damage its people: eight years through Saddam Hussein and now through unilateral sanctions or through the UN Security Council.  We should ask ourselves: if Germany, France, the US, the UK, and Russia have to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful (read terminated), who is then to watch Germany, France, the US, the UK, and Russia and make sure that they do not embark upon yet another destruction of Iranian economic and human resources?

Take the above into account when you hear feigned Western suspicions about Iranian intentions regarding the transfer of 70 percent of the Iranian low-enriched uranium abroad, to be exchanged for fuel from France.  If anything, it is the Iranian people who ought to find such an exchange very suspicious — and they do.  The Iranian people will continue to require transparency from the international party through their parliament (Majles) and will not easily sanction Ahmadinejad to go ahead with the transfer of the Iranian uranium abroad.  After all, the Iranian nuclear program is a nationalized project.  The whole nation, and not just the president, has to agree with the deal.  There may not be an American-defined or European-defined or even Israeli-defined democracy in Iran, but there is democracy of another kind in the country nevertheless.  A substantial population of Iran believe to have their representatives in the Majles; another substantial part of the population are engaged in a complex but ongoing political competition with the former.  There is a massive level of public participation, despite a considerable degree of force monopolized by the state.  In other words, every socio-political faction of today’s Iran is actively practicing its full capacities.  This is not a new thing.  The Iranians have become fully mobilized many times during their contemporary history and beyond (the Tobacco Movement of 1891, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, the 1951 Nationalization of Oil, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Reform Movement of 1997-2005, and now the national nuclear agenda in addition to the “Green Movement”).  What is new is only the “outside” world noticing their existence thanks to mass information-sharing tools such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the emerging “citizen journalism.”

The international community and its citizens should hasten to catch up with the indigenous energy coming from Iran.  They have to learn quickly to realize its mechanism and its potentials.  The West has to get over the fact that Iran is an independent country against all odds.  It should recognize the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic both as a regime and as a state and try to engage with it as an equal party.  That means that the West must give up its desire and proactive policies for regime change in Iran through economic and political sanctions or by more aggressive military means.  If there is going to be any change in Iran, it is bound to come from within — without any outside interference whatsoever.

Germany can continue sanctioning itself through Iran, the US can pretend to be concerned about the security of the world and democracy in Iran, France can share a desire to destroy Iran’s economy and independence, the UK is free to try to sabotage another nationalized Iranian project, and they all can enjoy a ride on the Israeli bandwagon.  At the end of the day, however, they all have to be wary of what they are going to lose along the way, just economic interests at best, and moral values at worst.


1  See Judy Dempsey, “Germany Supports Tougher Iran Sanctions,” New York Times, 18 January 2010; also “Merkel Backs Iran Sanctions at German-Israeli Cabinet Session,” Deutsche Welle, 18 January 2010.

2  “Merkels Sanktionspolitik wird teuer für die deutsche Wirtschaft,”, 28 January 2010; or “German Cabinet Divided over Merkel’s Iran Sanction Plans,” Islamic Republic News Agency, 28 January 2010; and “Handelsblatt: German Cabinet Divided over Iran Sanction Plans,”, 29 January 2010.

3  See Adam Arnold, “‘Iran Crackdown Is Destroying The Country’,” Sky News Online, 2 February 2010.

4  See Isabel Kershner, “Merkel Says Holocaust Fills Germans ‘With Shame’,” New York Times, 19 March 2008.

5  See Frederick Kempe, “How German Firms Built Up Iraq’s Arsenal,” Seattle Times (reprinted from Wall Street Journal), 4 October 1990.

6  See Marc Erikson, “Germany’s Leading Role in Arming Iraq,” Asia Times, 5 February 2003.  For a comprehensive, documented, and academic account of this, see among others, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “The Whole Range of Saddam Hussein’s War Crimes,” Middle East Report(239), 2006, pp. 30-35; ibid, The International Politics of the Persian Gulf, London, New York: Routledge, 2006; Joost R. Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; and Bi’kār’gīrī-i silaḥ-i shīmīyā’ī tatavassuṭ-i rizhīm-i Irāq (Use of Chemical Warfare by Iraqi Regime), Tehran: War Information Headquarters, Supreme Defence Council, 1985.

7  See Baker Spring, “America’s Options If Iraq Uses Chemical Weapons,” The Heritage Foundation, 24 August 1990.

8  See Angela Merkel’s Official Website: <>.

Shirin Shafaie is an Iranian researcher and PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  She was educated in Iran (BA in Philosophy and MA in Philosophy of Art) and in the UK (MSc in Middle East Politics).  The core of her research is critical war studies in general and the Iran-Iraq War in particular.

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