For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it should have been a routine trip abroad. But her flight to India was disturbed by a diplomatic incident that could further sour relations between Berlin and Tehran.
In the early hours of Tuesday, Iran denied Merkel's government aircraft overflight rights at short notice. The chancellor's plane, which had a large delegation of politicians and journalists on board, had to circle over Turkey for around two hours. It was finally allowed to pass through Iranian airspace following a lengthy negotiation with Tehran which was mediated by Turkey and involved the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle protested strongly against Iran's action. Speaking on Tuesday during the start of his visit to Australia, Westerwelle said it showed "a lack of respect toward Germany that we cannot accept." The Foreign Ministry in Berlin responded by summoning the Iranian ambassador to Germany on Tuesday. It would be made clear to him that "such a breach of international protocol against Germany would absolutely not be accepted," Westerwelle said.
"There has never been an incident like this," said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert. He said that the plane had already entered Iran's airspace when Iranian air traffic control asked the pilot to leave again, saying that the aircraft did not have permission to enter. The German pilots insisted they had the necessary authorization. The plane had been given permission to enter Iranian airspace before it left Berlin on Monday evening.
After a long discussion with the Iranian authorities, the pilot returned to Turkish airspace. At some point the Turkish air traffic control had to become involved, as the Iranians refused to talk to the German pilots any longer.
"I have never experienced anything like this in my career," said one veteran government flight attendent, according to a SPIEGEL ONLINE reporter who was on board the flight. "They're really hot under the collar up there," she added, gesturing to the cockpit.
Merkel, however, was initially unaware of the problem. She was sleeping in a private cabin at the front of the plane at the time, and her staff did not want to disturb her.
Two Hours Late in Arriving
The plane was unable to take an alternative route to India as it was not possible to get permission to fly through other countries' airspace at such short notice. The pilots were concerned about the plane's fuel levels and were about to fly back and land in Ankara when Tehran suddenly granted permission to enter its airspace.
Merkel, who was traveling to India for an official visit, arrived in New Dehli more than two hours late on Tuesday morning as a result of the delay. An appointment with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to be cancelled. It was the inaugural flight of the new government plane "Konrad Adenauer," an Airbus A340-300.
A second aircraft carrying several members of Merkel's cabinet, including Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, was able to cross Iranian airspace without any problems. It had left Berlin before Merkel's plane.
The reason for the denial of overflight rights was initially unclear. The German delegation said that "coordination problems" were to blame. Merkel herself was relaxed in her reaction, saying only that it had been an "interesting start to the trip."
Relations between Berlin and Tehran have deteriorated in recent years due to German opposition to Iran's nuclear program, and there have been a number of points of conflict in recent months. Germany recently dropped its opposition to European Union sanctions against a Hamburg-based Iranian bank that was considered a financial lifeline for Tehran's nuclear program. The EU agreed to impose sanctions on the bank at a foreign ministers' meeting last week.
There was also tension between the countries when Iran detained two German reporters in October 2010. They were finally released in February after Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made a personal visit to Tehran and met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Despite Iran's pariah status, Germany is still the third-largest exporter to the country. Last year, German exports to the Islamic republic were worth 3.8 billion ($5.5 billion). Nevertheless, a number of major German companies, such as Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, have decided to stop doing business with Iran.
With reporting by Philipp Wittrock