Dmitry S. is one of those Russian businessmen with a knack for quick deals. A native Uzbek and Russian citizen, he has just completed a major deal in Moscow for beef shipments from Brazil. In his last deal, he supplied half of Siberia with CD players and TVs from Berlin.
But Dmitry S.'s deals are not always so trouble-free. A deal involving industrial equipment attracted the attention of prosecutors and customs investigators to S., who has been doing business in German for more than a decade. The electromagnetic brakes, switchgear, spring elements and special cables that the 46-year-old businessman bought up in Germany between 2001 and 2004 were bound for the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr -- a central project in the nuclear program of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Dmitry S. case has since evolved into more than just an ordinary criminal case. Indeed, it touches on highly sensitive international political issues. Proliferation experts working for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have shown a keen interest in the investigations by prosecutors in Potsdam, near Berlin. And this is not just because, once again, a number of German companies, working hand-in-hand with foreign dealmakers, are suspected of circumventing export bans.
The case's true political explosiveness lies in the structure of the business relationships it involved. The Potsdam prosecutors now believe that they can prove that Dmitry S. and his now-liquidated Berlin company, Vero Handels GmbH, were involved in the acquisition of illegal material from Germany on behalf of the partially state-controlled Russian nuclear company Atomstroiexport (ASE) -- material intended for export to Iran. "It looks as if Putin's nuclear firm deliberately violated German law," says one investigator.
The evidence has not yet been sufficient to justify a concrete investigation of ASE executives. The German prosecutors will have trouble prosecuting the key figures, who included two other Vero employees as well as Dmitry S., because they are no longer in Germany. The Germans are investigating more than three dozen individuals implicated in the Vero case. At least six companies are suspected of having supplied Vero with parts worth about €6 million for Iran's nuclear power plant in Bushehr.
The Russian company ASE has been building the 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in the Iranian port city since the mid-1990s. German electronics giant and power plant producer Siemens began the project in the 1970s, and some of the companies which are now being investigated already supplied equipment to the plant back then. ASE was also interested in utilizing that know-how.
The only problem is that back in 1991 the German government decided not to approve any further shipments to Bushehr. According to a German Foreign Ministry document, the ban also applied to "products which tend to have peripheral significance for the operation of a nuclear power plant." ASE was seeking, in Germany, precisely those types of parts that were not directly related to the reactor area. German prosecutors believe that ASE sought to get around the German export ban with the help of Dmitry S. and Vero.
The trick was apparently simple, as a deal for the delivery of 120 special shock absorbers that involved a Berlin vibration technology manufacturer reveals. The purchaser of the parts was not ASE, the company that is building Bushehr, but Vero's office in Moscow. According to the contract, the shipping address was in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The parts were allegedly destined for a Russian nuclear power plant. However, investigators discovered that they ended up on the construction site for the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
The Berlin management of the shock absorber manufacturer, which was still involved legally in Iran in the 1970s, claims that it had no knowledge that the parts were eventually shipped to Iran. "Our client was tricked," says the company's attorney.
Prosecutors question the credibility of such objections. According to confiscated company documents, ASE contacted the Berlin company shortly before the deal with Vero was signed, although that approach failed because of concerns about export law. ASE was inquiring about the same amount and the same product, namely spring elements for the nuclear power plant in Iran.
"It was clear to all of Vero's partners that the shipments were meant for Bushehr," says Vero's attorney, Klaus-Michael Bärlein. Vladimir Asbukin, the vice-president of ASE, insists that his company is "in no way responsible" when suppliers violate German laws.
But German government officials are not nearly as laid back. The matter, according to a statement the Foreign Office prepared for the investigators, calls Germany's international credibility into question.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan