By Cathrin Gilbert, Holger Stark and Andreas Ulrich
Investigators showed up at around 9:30 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday in August. They wore bulletproof vests as they entered the driveway. Their superiors had ordered them to take protective measures.
The agents held up search and arrest warrants in front of the intercom camera and waited until the gate slowly opened at this residence in the upper-middle-class Hamburg district of Poppenbüttel. They had come to arrest the building's owner, a nondescript older man named Gholamali K., and his son Kianzad.
The two Iranian-Germans are suspected of working at the heart of a ring that allegedly supplied valves to Iran's controversial nuclear program. At the same time, investigators searched offices in a number of German cities -- in Oldenburg, Weimar and Halle -- and arrested two additional men.
The four arrests are the latest blow to suspected supporters of Iran's bid to become a nuclear power. Investigations show that Germany remains a hub for clandestine deliveries to Iran, despite wide-ranging sanctions.
A 'Focal Point' for Procurement
Iranian-German collaborations have a long history. For many years, companies like German engineering giant Siemens played an important role in the construction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr. German mechanical engineering companies rank among the best in the world, and their products are highly coveted by engineers in Tehran. A recent confidential situation report by the German Customs Criminal Investigation Office (ZKA) said that Germany is a "focal point for Iran's procurement activity" by Iran. The report went on to say that "preventing illegal exports" represents "a key challenge."
Sales of banned high-tech products boost the Iranian nuclear program, but they also threaten the German government's policy, which is largely relying on tight export restrictions to head off a war in the Middle East. The means "at our disposal to force Iran to be more transparent have not been exhausted," says German Chancellor Angela Merkel, adding that "sanctions are at the top of the list here."
Merkel made a promise to the international community. Germany will "do everything that it can to ensure that trade with Iran will not simply seek out new routes," she said back in November 2007. This is the policy that the German government is pursuing in official talks with the Iranians as well as the Israelis.
The chancellor's main argument is that sanctions are an effective approach. It's a line of reasoning that she uses to counter the warmongers surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is endeavoring to prepare the world for a military strike against Iran. Just last week, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the Israeli leader adamantly warned of the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.
An Image Problem for Germany
If companies in Germany are able to slip through the tightly woven net of restrictions, this could create the impression around the world that German companies are collaborating virtually at will with the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such a realization would largely undermine Merkel's argument. Consequently, there is little that the chancellor and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle fear more than the allegation that German support helped pave the way for the creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
The products that were to come from Germany this time around are fist-sized valves that are an essential component for launching heavy water reactors and bringing them under control. Such a facility is being built in Arak.
The regime is developing a heavy water reactor in this provincial capital in northwestern Iran -- population 470,000, located 280 kilometers (174 miles) from Tehran. Such reactors can operate with naturally occurring uranium, making them suitable for countries that have problems enriching this substance. This reactor was officially designed for the production of radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine, but it also produces plutonium and tritium, which are elements that can be used to build a nuclear bomb. With the aid of a heavy water reactor, for instance, India was able to produce the fissionable material for its first nuclear warhead.
Arak is a pillar of Iran's nuclear program. The reactor is on the observation list of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and would be among the targets if Israel were to launch air strikes.
The German agency conducting the investigation has given the operation the codeword "Ventilator," named after the German word for valves, Ventile.
A Cat-and-Mouse Game
Investigators claim the deal dates back to 2007, when a man from Iran named Hossein T. made contact with an engineer named Rudolph M., 78, in the eastern German city of Weimar. M. owns a company that has specialized in plant engineering and custom fittings since 1995, and he is reputed to be an expert in his field.
According to federal prosecutors, Hossein T., 48, runs a number of companies that are closely linked to the Iranian nuclear program. In 2007, T. allegedly received a major order from an Iranian firm called Modern Industries Technique Company (MITEC). MITEC is a familiar player in the-cat-and-mouse game between Iran and the international community.
The company is responsible for building the reactor near Arak. In June 2010, the United Nations added MITEC to its blacklist of companies aiding Iran's nuclear program. One month later, the European Union followed suit and banned the company. Since then, anyone who does business with MITEC is committing a punishable offense.
Hossein T. is suspected of purchasing special components for MITEC: approximately 1,800 valves in three different models -- some forged, others cast -- some apparently innocuous, others specially "suitable and designed for use in nuclear reactors," according to investigative files.
The valves are of vital importance for Arak. The 1,800 valves would have been enough to equip the entire reactor, and would have represented a major step toward completing the nuclear facility. The deal was worth 6 million ($7.7 million) to the Iranians.
Interesting details. Previously it was Pakistan where atomic bomb expert Dr AQ Khan managed all the facilities needed to assemble bomb with the help of Holland and Germany and now it is Iran. Business people earn money while those [...] more...
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