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.
He cautioned that although the tanks could be used for urban warfare, they were better suited for military uses than shutting down protests. The armored vehicles sent into Bahrain were smaller ones from the Saudi national guard, rather than the best army tanks.
In a raucous and passionate debate in Parliament on Wednesday, Juergen Trittin, leader of the Green Party, declared that the government was "stimulating an arms race in the Middle East." Joachim Pfeiffer, an economic spokesman for Merkel's party, accused him of hypocrisy on the floor of the Bundestag.
Germany has been accused in recent years of going its own way more often, a concern that was heightened by the decision to break with its allies on the intervention in Libya. The sale of Leopard tanks fits the growing impression in many corners of a mercantilist Germany, whose foreign policy is first and foremost concerned with its own economic interests.
Even as the German government demanded budget cuts in Greece, officials also insisted that the struggling European partner honor its defense contracts. Germany is the No.1 arms dealer to Greece.
Despite its image as a pacifist country, chastened by both the atrocities committed during World War II and its total defeat, Germany is a major weapons producer and dealer, responsible for 11 percent of global conventional arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, ranking it third in the world behind the United States and Russia. The United States is not only the largest exporter of weapons in the world but has long supplied arms to the Saudi Arabian military.
For a decade after the end of World War II, Germany had no defense industry, forbidden by the victorious allies from producing weapons. As German industries began to increase production, tanks using the same powerful engines as trucks were one of their strong suits, said Michael Brzoska, a professor and director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. Today, the defense industry employs about 80,000 people, he said.
But as European governments cut back spending on weapons systems, those jobs would disappear without new markets.