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US sanctions fuel diplomatic dilemma in Munich

Alexander Pearson
February 28, 2018

Germany's military stepped in after airport fuel companies — citing US sanctions — refused to refuel an Iranian plane. The incident almost prevented Iran's foreign minister from attending a prominent security conference.

Betankungswagen zwischen Triebwerken eines Airbus A340-600
Image: Imago/JOKER/H. Khandani

The Bundeswehr refueled Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's plane in Munich in mid-February after local fuel companies refused to do so out of fear they would violate US sanctions against Iran, according to German media reports.

The refueling took place while Zarif was attending the Munich Security Conference with other foreign officials and security experts, daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and regional public broadcasters NDR and WDR reported on Tuesday.

Read more: Opinion: Munich Security Conference – the end of diplomacy?

Fear of US sanctions

Munich Airport told Zarif a week before the conference it would not be able to refuel his diplomatic plane after arriving from Mumbai, India. The airport said it was unable to buy fuel from local companies, which feared contravening US sanctions against Iran by delivering the fuel.

The US has built up layers of sanctions — some of which apply to non-US companies — against Iranian officials and companies in response to Tehran's nuclear program and intervention in the Middle East.

Iran has claimed its nuclear program is peaceful, but the US and other world powers suspect it could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Read more: US sanctions hit two German firms in Iran-linked counterfeit scheme

Diplomatic intervention

Munich Airport told Zarif, who had planned to travel to Moscow after leaving the security conference, he could bring fuel with him on his trip to Munich, in the southern state of Bavaria, or fly to the nearby Austrian capital of Vienna to refuel there.

Iranian officials rejected those choices and instead requested the conference organizer, Wolfgang Ischinger, who was previously Germany's ambassador to the US, to ask the German government to intervene.

The Defense Ministry agreed to take over the refueling a day before Zarif's arrival.

Read more: MSC chief Ischinger warns of high global danger of war

Netanyahu: 'This is the greatest threat to our world'

Bavarians to the rescue

As Zarif spoke at the conference on February 18, which saw him trade verbal barbs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, soldiers from the Bundeswehr's Bavarian Regional Command refueled the Iranian plane with 17,000 liters (4,500 gallons) of kerosene.

Ischinger was delighted that the solution secured Zarif's attendance at the conference: "Whatever you think of the sanctions, they almost ended here with us not being able to talk to each other at a dangerous point in time."

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Iranians have paid the Bundeswehr for the 17,000-liter fuel bill.

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