Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Germans Say 6 Companies Sold Nuclear Parts to Iran Network

Richard Bernstein, The New York Times:
German prosecutors are investigating whether six German companies sold electronic equipment to a clandestine procurement network established to supply Iran with equipment for its nuclear development program.

A prosecutor in the state of Brandenberg, Benedikt Welfens, told German television on Monday that several million dollars' worth of equipment that could be used for a nuclear program had been shipped from Germany to Iran, via a Russian company that operated in Berlin in 2003 and 2004.

"Its main business is the supply of Iran's nuclear program," Mr. Welfens said on the ARD television network. He said the parts included special cables, pumps and transformers, worth about $3.6 million. READ MORE

The Web site of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel on Tuesday quoted Mr. Welfens as saying that prosecutors suspected that one of the companies knew where the equipment had been headed, while the others may have mistakenly believed the equipment had been destined for Russia, for which no export restrictions apply.

Germany maintains strict export restrictions on so-called dual-use technology — goods that can be bought ostensibly for civilian purposes but diverted to military use — to Iran.

"The material was not of crucial significance for the nuclear industry," Mr. Welfens said. "It was peripheral rather than core.

"It did not include centrifuges," he said, referring to the machines used to enrich uranium gas and produce bomb-grade nuclear fuel.

The Russian front company, which has been closed down, was staffed by seven citizens of the former Soviet Union, all of whom have now disappeared, Mr. Welfens said. No arrests have been made, but prosecutors want to question the seven after having seized records and equipment in raids at 41 sites in Germany this week.

The raids and the disclosure that material useful in a nuclear development program was provided to Iran was bound to be interpreted by European and American officials as further evidence of a widespread, clandestine effort by Iran to build nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program, which has now been referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, is aimed only at generating electricity, an assertion that is openly disbelieved by governments in Europe and the United States.

On Thursday, Germany plays host to a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council that are seeking to coordinate a response to widespread accusations that Iran has failed to fully disclose its nuclear development activities.

Mr. Welfens said that the investigation into the procurement ring, which culminated in the raids, has been under way since September 2004, but that information that some material had made its way to Iran was received only recently, Der Spiegel reported.

"There are no signs that the Russian authorities knew anything about this," Mr. Welfens said. "We can't rule out that the Iranians approached Russian middlemen directly. It doesn't appear to have been handled very professionally. The middlemen would go around offering cash."