BONN, OCT. 11 -- Germany today refused to sell Saudi Arabia $350 million worth of tanks and other equipment that the Persian Gulf kingdom has requested.
Bonn leaders had wrestled for weeks over U.S. requests for German help in the gulf, finally presenting Washington with a $2.2 billion aid package. But the Saudi request -- to buy more than 300 tanks -- presented an even tougher dilemma for a nation just emerging from four decades of tight restrictions on its global military role.
German arms-export policy has long been to refuse sales to any "area of tension," a term that has always been defined to include the Middle East. In addition, Israel has long insisted that German arms sales to Arab nations would betray the German moral obligation and political commitment to the Jewish state.
Today, German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg said that "the government has no intention of approving such arms deliveries in view of the current critical situation in the gulf."
A legislator from the opposition Social Democrats, Norbert Gansel, said the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl was "shameless" even to consider the Saudi request, especially in light of revelations of sales of military equipment to Iraq by German companies.
But the visiting Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, said his nation still hopes to win German assistance. After meeting with Kohl, the Saudi minister said he was pleased with his talks and hoped the two countries could achieve "good cooperation" despite Germany's friendship with Israel.
"We hope that now that Germany is united, this sensitivity, which has until now hindered a decision, will no longer exist," Saud said. "We look forward to a more active role by the united Germany in international affairs."
He insisted that Saudi Arabia would use any weapons it might obtain from Germany "not to attack other states, but to defend itself."
Saud also said he would welcome German troops in the international force massed in Saudi Arabia since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Thus far, Germany has refused to send troops to the gulf, arguing that its constitution prohibits the stationing of German troops outside NATO territory.
But Kohl has said he will push for a constitutional change allowing German troops to take part in United Nations actions. Many German scholars say, however, that the constitution does not ban such activities but specifically allows German troops to join in actions by international security alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the United Nations.
In an interview in today's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Kohl told the Munich newspaper that "we can no longer convince anybody beyond Germany's borders that our hands are tied by the constitution. It is damaging to the moral stature of our country if we are world champions in exports on the one hand but shrink from our international responsibilities on the other."
Beginning in the early 1960s, West Germany restricted its arms exports to its partners in NATO, Third World countries fighting communist insurrections, and Israel. But secret sales to Israel were stopped in 1965 after a heated public debate. And since 1971, Bonn's arms sales have been governed by rules prohibiting exports to countries in areas of conflict.
In 1981, a press leak revealed that the Saudis had asked Bonn for 150 tanks and 70 armored vehicles and mobile anti-aircraft batteries, and that Helmut Schmidt, then chancellor, was leaning toward making the deal. News of the request sparked a fierce debate in which Kohl, then Christian Democratic party chairman, argued in favor of selling to the Saudis.
Later that year, the government decided against the sale, in part because of Germans' moral responsibility to Israel and in part because of concerns that the sale would heighten tension in the Middle East.