BERLIN — While Hamas shoots Iranian-supplied missiles at civilians deep in the heart of Israel, Germany is pushing for increased economic engagement with Iran.

The German Near and Middle East Association, or NUMOV, as it is known by its German acronym, backed by high level German businessmen and politicians, is planning a trade mission to Iran in December. With Iran’s continued nuclear activities, its human rights abuses, and its current missile support for Hamas during its attacks on Israel, Jewish and human rights activists are furious.

NUMOV is on the forefront of those pushing for German trade with Iran. NUMOV CEO Helene Rang said is a recent interview, “German companies will have to act fast and seize the lucrative opportunities offered by the market” on July 18 in Deutsche Welle.

Following its December 6 delegation of German entrepreneurs to Iran, NUMOV predicts Iran “could emerge as the greatest market in the Middle East…The purpose of the delegation’s trip is to initiate new business contacts and serve to deepen the preexisting economic relations [between Germany and Iran].”

NUMOV is hardly an obscure lobbyist organization. Headquartered not far from Berlin’s famous Check Point Charlie, NUMOV proudly displays its Nazi era origins, where on the plaque outside the office with NUMOV’s name and logo, are the words “founded in 1934.”

Heinrich Gattineau (1905-1985) at the Nuremberg Trials. Gattineau was an I.G. Farben official, which manufactured Zyklon B gas, and a member of NSDAP and SA. (public domain via Wikipedia)

Heinrich Gattineau (1905-1985) at the Nuremberg Trials. Gattineau was an I.G. Farben official, which manufactured Zyklon B gas, and a member of NSDAP and SA. (public domain via Wikipedia)

The organization has published documents available on its website about its origins. While making no mention of the Nazi affiliation of certain founders, NUMOV does list the original board members’ names, which include prominent Nazi businessman Kurt Wiegelt of Deutsche Bank, panzer tank manufacturer and forced labor exploiter Oscar R. Henschel, and Dr. Heinrich Gattineau of I.G. Farben (today known as BASF), which was infamous for producing the Zyklon B poisonous gas used in the German death camp gas chambers.

The former Nazi Gattineau, despite being tried for war crimes, was able to continue his business career after World War II, and so was a largely unchanged NUMOV.

Unlike, companies such as Siemens and Daimler, who have openly engaged with their involvement in the Holocaust and have stopped new business with Iran, NUMOV has done neither.

Today its board includes current German parliament member Achim Post, whose Social Democrat Party (SPD) is part of the government coalition, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (also of the SPD), the CEOs of Deutsche Bank and Porsche AG, and the CEO of Wintershall, owned by the giant German company BASF.

Flourishing in the shadow of NUMOV’s Nazi past

This continuity and lack of dealing with its historical past evident in NUMOV is relevant to understanding the current German-Iran relationship, according to Dr. Matthias Kuentzel, author of the upcoming book, “Germany and Iran: From the Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold.”

Plaque outside the Berlin building housing NUMOV, stating 'founded in 1934.' (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

Plaque outside the Berlin building housing NUMOV, stating ‘founded in 1934.’ (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

In a telephone call, Kuentzel says, “In 1934 NUMOV was anti-Western, and today it is anti-Western.” The historian argues that German officials in the foreign office and chancellory, together with the support of prominent think tanks like SWP (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), are seeking to “make Germany more independent from American influence.”

“For them,” he continues, “Iran is a country of hope” where new forces like Russia and China rise on the geopolitical map. Through a relationship with Iran, Germany can distance itself from the Western camp and pursue a policy of what he calls “multipolarity.”

Michael Spaney, of Stop the Bomb, a group campaigning to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, notes that while there are strong economic benefits for the Germany-Iran relationship, particularly in energy and trade, “the problem lies within the political sphere.”

Stop the Bomb's Michael Spaney speaking at a demonstration. (courtesy Michael Spaney of Stop the Bomb)

Stop the Bomb’s Michael Spaney speaking at a demonstration. (courtesy Michael Spaney of Stop the Bomb)

Spaney notes that while officially German foreign policy has been somewhat favorable to Israel within the E.U., “if you dig deeper, you will find that this is superficial, and historically, this is not the case.”

The same members of the Nazi foreign office who forged bonds with Middle Eastern leaders like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini, and Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, continued to dominate the foreign office after WWII. Spaney highlights Wilhelm Melchers, director of Orient Office in Nazi Germany, who continued to serve in the foreign service throughout the 50s and 60s, and even received the Order of Merit cross in 1954. Additionally, West German scientists, many of them former Nazis, helped Arab countries in their war against Israel.

To Spaney and Kuentzel, the continuity of German anti-Western elements in the political and foreign policy sphere is vital to understanding why Germany is so reluctant to cut off trade and increase sanctions on Iran, and they fear Germany is moving too fast to trade and engage with Iran.

Kuentzel says, “In my opinion, while the shots in Sarajevo in 1914 ushered in the catastrophes of the 20th century, an Iranian bomb could well become the catalyst for the coming disasters of the 21st. That is why Germany should do everything to isolate the Iran regime as long as it continues to develop a nuclear weapon option.

“However, the opposite takes places: There is no other country in the Western world that holds such a close relationship with the terrorist regime in Tehran on a political, economical and cultural level. Germany of all countries,” says Kuentzel.

Push to close the ‘nuclear file’ for increased trade

On June 13-15 prominent members of the German government and academia met with their Iranian counterparts in Tehran at the 156th Bergedorf Round Table organized by the German Koerber Foundation. Attendees included regional heads of the German Federal Chancellory, Bundestag Members, Federal Foreign Office Heads, and executives of Germany’s leading think tanks.

At this high level conference, according to the conference report written by the organizers, “Closing the nuclear file would open up new fields of cooperation between Iran and the West… The fundamental conditions for improved cooperation between Iran and the West are in place, both sides now have to seize this historic opportunity.”

Dr. Walter Posch, Deputy Head of German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)'s Middle East and Africa division (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

Dr. Walter Posch, Deputy Head of German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)’s Middle East and Africa division (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

The report covered discussed topics like European-Iranian cooperation in energy trade, the stability of Afghanistan, and dealing with Islamists groups like ISIS. There is no discussion of the Iranian regime’s calls to destroy Israel, its support for anti-Semitic attacks, or anything else related to Israel and anti-Semitism. According to the report, “the biggest point of conflict discussed is the nuclear issue.”

Dr. Walter Posch, Deputy Head of SWP’s Middle East and Africa Research Division, attended the conference. At a Berlin cafe outside SWP’s palatial offices, Posch explains how “Germany is one of the defining powers in [international] policy.”

Resolving the nuclear file is paramount to Germany’s interests, and Germany seeks to “not wage another war with an unclear outcome.”

‘I think Netanyahu is exaggerating in what Iranians are doing now, but he is not exaggerating regarding Iran’s intentions, that is to obtain a nuclear capability’

What about Iran’s race to build the bomb, and the urgency that Israel and opponents of trade with Iran cite as reasons for a harsher Iran policy?

“I think Netanyahu is exaggerating in what Iranians are doing now, but he is not exaggerating regarding Iran’s intentions, that is to obtain a nuclear capability,” says Posch.

Posch asserts that “without Europe and Germany, there would have been another war in Iran that America could not win.”

While supporting the use of sanctions, Posch also sees a benefit to sanctions relief.

“Sanctions relief is the real weapon. For the time being, the sanctions are good as they are, we should not sharpen them. It must be clear to the Iranians that there is the possibility of sharpening or easing,” says Posch.

The rise of the Islamic State or ISIS poses a new, unknown variable in the Middle East that, according to Dr. Posch, puts the West, “whether we like it or not, in the same boat as the Iranians” and is “a reason for non-confrontation with Iran.”

Posch, like many of the other Europeans at the conference, feels that only once the nuclear issue is resolved, can Europe and Iran cooperate on important issues like global security and energy. In the meantime, says Posch, organizations like NUMOV, “who would love to immediately engage” with Iran “cannot move as fast as they would like with the nuclear issue unresolved.”

What does NUMOV have to say?

What do the companies say about their CEOs’ membership on the board of an organization that actively courts business with Iran?

Deutsche Bank and Porsche did not respond to requests. BASF senior manager of media relations, Ursula von Stetten, refused to comment on Wintershall CEO’s chairmanship of NUMOV’s board, but did say that “We strictly comply with the national and international legal requirements” concerning their multimillion dollar business with Iran.

NUMOV bard member German parliament member Achim Post, whose Social Democrat Party (SPD) is part of the government coalition. (courtesy)

NUMOV bard member German parliament member Achim Post, whose Social Democrat Party (SPD) is part of the government coalition. (courtesy)

Bundestag member Achim Post, whose SPD party is part of Germany’s ruling coalition, refused several interview requests. Marionka Pohl, who manages communication for Post, explained he does not have time to answer questions about his membership of NUMOV’s board — not by phone or email.

While the board members contacted were not willing or did not have time to discuss their involvement on NUMOV’s board, some of them did have time to contact NUMOV CEO Helene Rang.

Rang, who had previously refused to answer The Times of Israel’s questions, sent an email on behalf of the organization’s board members explaining that NUMOV is “completely apolitical” and that “the conversations between the P5+1 group and Iran are proceeding positively, and NUMOV has joined and is supporting the economic dialogue.”

Rang included a list of unsourced “Headlines from international business newspapers in recent months” describing renewal of business ventures and political engagement from Western countries. She also included another unsourced list that appears to show waivers issued to companies and institutions to trade or engage with Iran in 2014.

Rang’s constructive outlook towards Iran and reference to rising engagement is alarming to the Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Berlin office, Deidre Berger.

In an email, Berger writes that the AJC is extremely concerned about the rise in Germany’s trade with Iran since the signing of the interim agreement… “German trade associations such as NUMOV, who claim there is a ‘remarkable phase of political détente’ in Iran and encourage a massive resumption of German trade with Iran, are completely out of touch with reality.”

‘The announcement by NUMOV of a major German trade mission to Iran in December is one of the surest ways to torpedo the remaining months of negotiations’

“Human rights abuses in Iran remain horrific, with the number of executions having increased under Prime Minister Rouhani. Iran continues to be a major supporter of the terror organization Hezbollah and the murderous regime of Bashar Al-Asad in Syria. The announcement by NUMOV of a major German trade mission to Iran in December is one of the surest ways to torpedo the remaining months of negotiations,” writes Berger.

Berger wonder why Iran should get serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons when the world is at its doorstep?

“We hope that NUMOV and its leadership follows government policy and cancels its impending trip to Iran, which gives the wrong signal that non-action on the part of the Iranian government should be rewarded.”

Grigori Lagodinsky sits on the board of the Working Group of Jewish Social Democrats, the same party of NUMOV board member Achim Post, of NUMOV honorary chairman Gerhard Schroeder, and of Rolf Muetzenich, who as the SPD Parliamentary group’s deputy chairman, is responsible for foreign policy and human rights.

Despite leading engagement efforts with the Iranian regime, in a July 26 Deutsche Welle interview, Mueztenich has also called for the international community to exert financial pressure on Israel to stop building settlements.

Grigori Lagodinsky, boardmember of the Working Group of Jewish Social Democrats (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

Grigori Lagodinsky, boardmember of the Working Group of Jewish Social Democrats (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

In a meeting at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, Lagodinsky explains how he does not see the anti-Israel, pro-Iran sentiment as a defining trend of the SPD, but he does have concerns about Post.

“I expect someone from the SPD who is on the board of such an organization to question NUMOV’s positions on Iran,” says Lagodinsky.

Likewise regarding the corporate CEOs on NUMOV’s board, Lagodinsky says, “Large German corporations should consider their moral responsibility while doing business especially in light of their own history. It doesn’t seem like they care much about morals, being on the board of an organization that encourages trade interests with Iran, while Iran continues its nuclear program.”

‘We’re basically at a devastating and depressing level here when it comes to fighting anti-Semitism and the German involvement with terrorist and Islamist regimes like Iran’

Members of the Jewish community and a few dedicated German activists like Kuentzel and Spaney find the situation scandalous. However, according to Konstantin Betscheider, spokesperson for Association Antiallemande Berlin, an antifascist group combatting anti-Semitism, to the majority of Germans “this whole issue, sadly, isn’t scandalous. It isn’t even something people would mind if they knew about.

“We’re basically at a devastating and depressing level here when it comes to fighting anti-Semitism and – the two topics are connected – the German involvement with terrorist and Islamist regimes like Iran,” says Betscheider.

Bethschieder sees that the most effective response to NUMOV’s corporate and politically backed efforts in Iran lie outside of Germany. “We need international pressure from other countries… because in Germany they simply don’t care!” he says.

What can concerned people do about NUMOV and the prominent board members from Deutsche Bank, Porsche, BASF and others?

Bethschieder says Germany is very concerned with public opinion in America.

“Hold companies accountable for this! Stockholders should speak up at shareholder events, call them out on their involvement with NUMOV and the Iran trade in general. Show that you do not agree!” says Bethschieder.