From the Kaiser to Khamenei: The underreported Berlin-Tehran axis

Just as the rise of Nazi Germany didn’t impede relations with Iran, neither did the rise of another antisemitic authoritarian regime.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
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. One notable exception is Benjamin Weinthal, who has chronicled German-Iranian ties as the European affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.
As Weinthal has documented, Berlin allows operatives from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese-based, US-designated-terrorist 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.
The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused US demands to designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist 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 terrorist attacks from the Middle East to Europe and beyond. Hezbollah’s external operations unit has conducted surveillance and planned attacks in the US. 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 US intelligence officials and former White House officials testified before Congress on April 17, 2018 that “Iranian agents tied to the terrorist 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 terrorist attack on the soil of another charter NATO member, France, but was foiled once more.
Berlin – which relies extensively on the US for its own security – has been unmoved.
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 19th century, Persian hopes for industrial development hinged on German know-how and technological prowess. After the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888, “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 WWI, 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.
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.
In 1935, the Shah – hoping to stress a mythical shared heritage and encouraged by his ambassador to Germany – declared that Persia would now be known as Iran (land of the Aryans). By 1938 Germany was Iran’s number-one trade partner for both exports and imports. With the outbreak of World War II, Allies concerns over Reza Khan’s pro-Nazi sympathies resulted in his forced ouster and the installment of his son, Mohammad Reza.
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 nation. From the beginning, the regime – like its Nazi precursor – sought the destruction of the Jewish people and was fiercely anti-Western.
Yet, Germany is seemingly unbothered by Tehran’s objectives.
In 1995, the US prohibited American businesses from trading with Iran due to the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorist groups and its attempts to acquire nuclear weaponry. The Clinton administration received little cooperation from Berlin. As Iran’s then-Ambassador to Germany, Hossein Mousavian, noted: “Iran viewed its dialogue and relations with Germany as an important means toward the circumvention of the anti-Iranian policies of the United States.”
Germany 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 UN 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 UN 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.”
More recently, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pledged to help Iran circumvent US sanctions. Maas’s pledge occurred the same week that the US charged two Iranian spies with conducting surveillance of Israeli and Jewish facilities on American soil.
The Islamic Republic has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Israel and Tehran has supported antisemitic terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, among others, and sought nuclear weapons to that end. 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 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.”
The writer is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.