Germany's Iran Headache Will a German Crane Be Used By the Mullahs to Make Missiles?

The export of a German special-purpose crane to Teheran is turning into a political headache for the German government. Officials are scrambling to stop a ship carrying a high-tech crane they believe Iran's leaders want to use in a missile production program that has raised deep concern in Israel, the US and Europe. They may be too late.

The mobile crane produced by Liebherr, an established company from southern Germany, is a textbook example of fine German engineering. The caterpillar-like crane can carry a load of 100 tons and lift objects as high as 72 meters. The LTM 110-5.1 is also one of the best cranes in the world. The "outstanding technology of the undercarriage," Liebherr boasts of the product, which is as robust as it is highly developed, is excellently equipped for the road as well as for off-road purposes.

With its manifold qualities, it comes as little surprise that an Iranian company called Mizan Machine ordered a model of the Teutonic wonder machine in early August, paid for it and had it shipped. On April 7, the high-tech machine, which has a ticket price of about €600,000 ($785,000), was loaded on board a ship in Hamburg and set sail for Teheran. It has been at sea ever since.

In the mean time, the heavy freight has caught up with the German government -- and it has been the source of several crisis meetings. As soon as the Hual Africa, which is registered in the Bahamas, left Hamburg, it dawned on customs officials that the Iranian company is on a black list held by the federal authorities. Mizan Machine is believed to be a camouflage company for the Iranian weapons program and to have already procured several weapons components. The equipment never should have left Germany.

After a thorough examination, the customs officers determined that the seemingly unsuspicious looking crane is intended for a highly explosive missile project the mullahs are working on. Last week, Germany's federal prosecutor initiated preliminary proceedings against the Teheran-based company on the suspicion its agents conducted espionage activities.

The case is not only diplomatically delicate, but also politically embarrassing. Currently, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is part of the European Union effort to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons program and if it were discovered that a German company was supplying the Iranian missile industry, it would serve as an embarrassing blow to Berlin.

Experts consider the mid-range weapons being developed by the mullahs to be as problematic as their presumed production of nuclear weapons. "A Nuclear program plus a missile program," Fischer has been warning for months, "would be a reason for concern in Europe. If Iran's military became a nuclear power, it would have unforeseeable consequences in one of the world's most dangerous regions. It would not only place Israel under threat, but also Europe."

Shahab-series missiles, especially, have been the subject of the suspicion and scrutiny of Americans, Europeans and Israelis. The Shahab 4 missiles now being developed have a range of 2,000 kilometers, which means that in addition to Israel, they could also strike eastern Europe. At a military parade last summer, western intelligence agents observed that the Iranian military has also modified the designs of some of its warheads -- possibly so that they can transport nuclear devices.

The fact that the crane has been shipped appears to have been a glitch on the part of customs agents. Officials in Berlin say customs first submitted the details about the Iranian recipient after the freighter had departed and the warning only came after the ship had reached international waters. Now, under the tutelage of the Economics Ministry, the Chancellery, Foreign Office and security authorities in Berlin are seeking ways to defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, it is too late to put a stop to the "hot business" (as one government official called it) in European waters. The 200-meter-long cargo ship has already sailed past Southampton and Le Havre, has passed through the Mediterranean, and last week was in the harbor of Port Said in the Suez Canal.

Officials are now scrambling to see if they can stop the ship. Experts consulting with Wolfgang Clement, a Social Democrat and Germany's Minister of Economics, have determined that it would be possible to stop the ship under the Foreign Trade and Payments Law. The comprehensive legislation permits officials to access ships if they are carrying "items that are of value in the development, production or use of weapons, ammunition and war material." But Egyptian authorities are thin-skinned when it comes to missions in their sovereign territory.

At the same time, there is little time remaining. Once the ship enters into Iranian territory, the crane will be out of reach.

And if that happens, the Germans would have to answer some embarrassing questions that could be posed by the Americans. As a member of the Proliferation Security Initiative -- which includes about a dozen members and was created in spring 2003 under US pressure -- Germany is held to stricter weapons exports standards than those required by the United Nations. The member states, a declaration supported by Germany reads, commit themselves to stop the transport of weapons of mass destruction and relevant technology -- be it by land, by water or by air.