German Subs To Israel a Ploy in Battle for Middle Eastern Influence
November 25, 2003 1725 GMT
Germany is threatening to quash a submarine sale to Israel in what is likely a bid to gain some leverage with the United States in reshaping the Middle East.
Questions surrounding Israel's acquisition of additional Dolphin-class submarines from Germany surfaced in Berlin in recent days. Focus, a German magazine known as a sporadic vehicle for "leaks" from unnamed German government sources, reported that Berlin had decided to deny Israel approval to purchase the submarines because it feared an arms race in the Middle East.
German government officials did not respond to requests for information on the sale, and an Israeli government official told Stratfor that Israel had not been notified of any German denial. However, the story tracks with a strategic question about U.S.-European agendas for the Middle East. Berlin might hope to leverage the Dolphin sale to get Washington to back off its condemnation of the Iranian nuclear program. The move will give Washington pause -- and will further strain already aggravated ties between Israel and Europe.
Europe sees working with Iran as key to curtailing U.S. influence in the Middle East. European countries, prior to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, were cultivating a strategic relationship with Iran, both as a fuel supplier and a vehicle for expressing and advancing European policy agendas in the Gulf region and the Middle East as a whole.
The choice of Iran was simple. Europe could not compete with the United States for influence in many Gulf states. Britain's stellar ties with Saudi Arabia corroded dramatically when the Saudis backed off the $31 billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with Britain's BAE Systems. Europe courted Iran because it didn't have to compete with the United States for Tehran; for Tehran, an alliance with Europe helped it emerge from isolation despite the U.S. sanctions. It was a concert of interests.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is forcing the alteration of an entire network of regional relationships, strategies, agendas and dialogues. While the brunt of the impact is being felt in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern states, the U.S. war on Iraq also has had implications for U.S.-Israeli relations, U.S.-European ties and European-Israeli cooperation.
The U.S. war in Iraq changed both the Iranian and the European calculus. Now Tehran does not have to rely solely on European goodwill in order to break out of its box. It can directly, or rather via the Shia in Iraq, negotiate a deal with Washington. The Europeans, on the other hand, now have the imperative to find a means for balancing the overwhelming U.S. sway in the region without alienating Washington.
The issue of Iran's nuclear program, then, is no longer just about Iran or Israel or even nuclear weapons. It has become a platform for disagreement between the United States and Europe over the future direction of the Middle East.
Even Washington's closest European ally -- London -- has sided with Germany and France against the United States to block U.S. efforts to sanction Iran in the U.N. Security Council and seek language to that effect in a resolution currently being drafted by members of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On Nov. 25, the United States caved to the European demands, giving up its efforts to include a clause that would send the issue to the Security Council. Instead, the text of the draft that will go before the IAEA board for a vote will condemn Iran's past failures and breaches and note that any future breaches would prompt the IAEA to "consider all options" -- options that might or might not include the Security Council.
In addition, Berlin now might be floating the idea of backing off the sale of the Dolphin subs.
Israel already has received three of the Dolphins from Germany, the last received in 2000. Germany's HDW built the three Dolphin-class Type 800 submarines exclusively for Israel's navy. The subs use diesel-electric propulsion systems and are small, displacing only 1,640 tons when surfaced and 1,900 when submerged. Primary missions for the Dolphin-class, which are similar to the German Type 212/214 design, include interdiction, patrol, surveillance and intelligence gathering, facilitation and protection of sea lines of communication, and the delivery of naval commandos and special forces. However, the three subs were extensively modified from their original designs for the Israelis. The torpedo tubes were specifically modified, six with the standard 533 millimeter dimension and four with 650 mm dimension, thought to have been built to meet requirements for the launching of nuclear tipped long-range missiles.
According to a German Foreign Ministry official, Germany wants to advance the economic and political positions of Iran and other Arab states as a check against U.S.-Israeli influence. However, Berlin not selling two more Dolphins after it has already provided three to Israel is like shutting the barn door after the cows are out.
Even so, the timing of the decision could make the United States ease off further efforts to win a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Iran. Berlin, London and Paris do not want to see the United States slowly build a case for either isolating Iran or worse, ousting its government by military or political means.
In October, a German newspaper reported that Israel would blow Iran's nuclear power facilities sky high if Tehran did not halt its alleged weapons program. The implication was clear: Either cooperate with the United States and Israel on all pertinent issues or face a military threat.
Europe does not want either the United States or Israel any more militarily -- or economically or politically -- powerful than they already are. According to Otfried Nassauer, founder of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security, a think tank and foreign policy advocacy firm, the "German public would be disappointed if Germany sold the Dolphin-class subs to Israel" because they could possibly be used as delivery systems for nuclear weapons -- the most likely targets being Iraq and Iran.
Although there are several other submarine manufacturers around the globe, including France and Russia, switching to another partner would be difficult, costly and time-consuming for Israel. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not found much favor in Europe, and the European public also is distrustful of Israel's growing power in the Middle East and U.S. support for Israeli policies. France has moved already to strengthen ties with Egypt, though it can hardly rival the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Cairo.
The conflict is nowhere near reaching critical mass -- but it is an issue worth watching, especially noting how the Europeans maneuver to contain the United States and Israel and which Middle Eastern states they align with to achieve this end.