German leader criticized after report of secret tank deal

By Nicholas Kulish

New York Times News Service

Published: Wednesday, July 6 2011 8:00 p.m. MDT

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing growing criticism from across the political spectrum here after news of a multibillion-dollar deal for the secret sale of 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia leaked from the national security council that approved it.

The government has responded with what the German media have called an "iron silence," which has fueled rather than dampened the furor over a sale that experts estimate will be worth roughly $2.5 billion.

Germany strained ties with its NATO allies when it abstained in the U.N. Security Council on the resolution authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians. Now the government has approved the shipment of the 68-ton tanks to Saudi Arabia even as the image of Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain to help suppress the protests there remains fresh in the public mind.

According to the website of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, which along with the company Rheinmetall produces the tank, the latest version, the Leopard 2A7(PLUS), includes "nonlethal capabilities," which would make it appropriate for crowd control, and an "obstacle clearance blade" almost like a plow in the front that can clear debris and roadblocks.

"This would be a perfect tank to drive into Bahrain and crack down on any uprising," said Jan Grebe, a researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, a nonprofit research institute that deals with security and development issues. "It's also a good tank to fight any demonstrations in Riyadh."

Not only political opponents but even members of Merkel's own party have criticized the sale on human rights grounds. The deal also reveals the shifting Israeli attitude toward the Saudis. Israel has notably not complained about the arms deal, and government sources here say that it was cleared with both the Americans and the Israelis before it went through.

Once viewed as a potential threat by Jerusalem, the regime in Saudi Arabia is increasingly viewed as a guarantor of stability in a region in upheaval, as revolutionary fervor sweeps through the Middle East.

"Every step that we take in the region we take with the condition that it promotes the security and the right to exist of Israel," said Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.

While he cautioned that he was not privy to the secret negotiations in the German security council, a deal to support Saudi Arabia was in Germany's interest.

"We cannot act as though we can paint the world pink and everything will be OK," Missfelder said. "We are a grown-up country and must define our policies through strategic interests."

The sale could also be seen as an effort to placate the Saudis, who were infuriated earlier this year when President Barack Obama sided with the protesters in Egypt and helped to usher Hosni Mubarak from power and again when NATO began its air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

The national security council is led by Merkel and is made up of top ministers, the head of her chancellery staff and, in an advisory capacity, the inspector general of the military. The council rarely leaks unauthorized information. That news of the council's approval of the Leopard tank deal was published by the news magazine Der Spiegel over the weekend was itself viewed in Germany as a sign of the discord and high emotions surrounding the issue.

Nick Brown, editor in chief of Jane's International Defense Review, cautioned that the deal was not finalized and that it could still fall through, but that if it happened it "would be a really big shift.

"The Saudis have been asking for Leopards for quite a long, long time and the Germans keep saying no," Brown said, referring to requests for a version of the tank dating to the 1980s.

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