IRAN: THE ATOMIC PATH
By Gianluca Di Feo and Stefania Maurizi
Originally published in L’Espresso, 28 December 2006
A small Italian firm based in Emilia Romagna, Northern Italy, operating in the business of selling metals; a well-established company in the Paris suburbs; the Hungarian branch of an American aluminium giant and, finally, the Dutch branch of a multi-national. All of them dedicated to doing business. All of them unknowingly involved in a network which is trying to build the most serious threat to world peace: the military programmes of President Ahmadinejad.
Western companies are helping Iran to assemble its death machine. Firms from France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and even the United States. They sign small contracts worth a modest amount of money, but with high strategic value: small drops which nourish Tehran’s missile and nuclear dreams. These companies don’t operate in the military sector, but rather manufacture civilian products, however some of their products are crucial for the making of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, in bad hands the same high-strength aluminium needed in the making of race car frames like Ferrari could also be of use in the making of centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Or even ball bearings: of use in CAT scans, but also in intercontinental missiles.
‘Dual-use’ is the word to describe the dual nature of these products and technologies: both for civilian and for military purposes. They are of great concern, as thanks to the ambiguity of their dual nature, they can cross European and U.S. borders often unnoticed. The dual-use éscamotage was the card that Saddam played to acquire chemical weapons to exterminate Kurds, that one which allowed Gaddafi to acquire his toxic gases and Abdul Qaader Khan to establish his network. Now an investigation by the Turkish Authorities demonstrates that Iran is now exploiting the same source, thus getting dual-use items through a triangle which L’Espresso has managed to reconstruct.
Everything began in Turkey. And yet, it started far from Turkey and ended in Tehran. As often happens, the first spark for this investigative work came from the United States: officially, the alarm was rung by Turkish Customs authorities, but actually the information came from the CIA. American aluminium giant Alcoa, based in Pittsburgh, alarmed Turkish authorities: “Our Hungarian and Russian branches are doing business with a Turkish firm owned by Iranian citizens. We suspect that, contrary to what they declare, metals sold by those branches will end up in Tehran”.
Turkey took this concern seriously and an investigation was launched in full secrecy: formally, the investigative work was in the hands of the Customs authorities, but actually anti-drug police was in charge of it. The Turkish firm mentioned by the Americans is Step Standart and is owned by the Jafari family, Iranians who travel between Turkey and Iran, enjoy good economic status, carry out business over five continents and seem very familiar with customs documents. The Jafari siblings and their father buy items and then send them to Iran. When the Turkish authorities started their check, they realised what had happened: dual-use items were imported in Turkey, a NATO country not sparking suspicion, and then later sent them to Iran.
High-strength aluminium, electronic equipment and devices which could be of use for guiding missiles or making explosives were imported from Europe, Canada and the United States, and were already out of reach when the Turks started their work. It was only at the Gurbulak customs office that Turkish investigators were able to stop a container transporting T6-7075 aluminium bars, although documents accompanying didn’t mention the T6 hardening at all. Step Standart had bought those bars from an Italian company based in Modena, Commerciale Fond, and those bars were destined for the Shadi Oil Industries, a firm apparently based in Tehran. L’Espresso asked many well-established oil experts about this firm: nobody can confirm Shadi's existence and, checking its address, one can simply find a food shop rather than an oil company.
The Turkish Atomic Energy Agency’s experts examined the aluminium seized in Gurbulak. “It is dual-use material”, they wrote in a report, “ it is included in the Nuclear Suppliers Group list”. Indeed T6-7075 aluminium is a material “under surveillance”, as it could be of use in the nuclear field. To export it abroad, one needs a special license issued by national authorities in charge of controlling dual-use exports. No one asked for that license, in the case of the aluminium bars seized in Gurbulak. Those bars were never cleared for export, neither in Italy nor in Turkey.
There is another fact which is indeed disquieting: the trafficking of ball bearings bought from France and sent to Iran via Italy. Those ball bearings were manufactured by ADR, a French company based in the Paris suburbs and specialised in ‘equipment for aeronautical, spatial, medical and military use’. The Jafaris acquired them through an Italian company, Frusca, based in Milan. Frusca rightfully wrote to the Jafaris: “If these items are of use in gyros, then you should provide a certificate which states who the end-user is”. ADR also confirms: “These components could be used for military purposes: we need a declaration regarding its civilian end use and a commitment to not sell them again”. No problem: Step provided those documents, and so 250 ball bearings arrived in Turkey and then from there were sent to Iran. The very items which had left France as ‘ball bearings for civilian purposes, worth 27,300 euros”, soon became “ball bearings for gyros worth 56,300 euros’.
Turkish investigators discovered that documents sent to France had been manipulated by the simple addition of ‘goods destined to Iran’, indeed a sort of smoke-in-mirrors trick, but one whose results arrive at the level of Star Wars, as gyros are crucial components for guiding long range missiles. Without these components, missiles like Shahab 3 and the even more powerful Shahab 4 could miss their target by dozens of kilometres, whereas gyros can guide them to few metres from their target after a rlight of 2,000 km.
Going through the Turkish investigative report, one can note that Step falsified documents on many occasions: 17 times just in 2005. While inspecting the Step office, Turkish agents found blank paper and a rubber stamp, one likely needed for falsifying documents. Turkish authorities suspect that Step owners had a fake rubber stamp and practiced with it on a blank sheet before using it to falsify documents. Truly film-style tricks here, though unfortunately in this case these tricks were instrumental in trafficking technologies for weapons of mass destruction.
And going through the Step businesses, suspicions seems only to increase. Turkish authorities examined some contracts between Step and the Dutch branch of Fluke Company, a multi-national specialised in electronic test tools, and the British-based Flowserve, which produces pumps for oil sectors, but for nuclear sectors as well. Items sold by Flowserve went from the Netherlands to Istanbul and from there they were sold to Carvana, a firm based in Tehran. And who was the Carvana agent? L’Espresso discovered that that agent is Step’s boss Mohammed Javad Jafari. Indeed a decisive piece of this jigsaw puzzle, rather than a coincidence. A piece which closes the circle. In fact, immediately after the Italian aluminium bars were seized in Gurbulak, the Italian firm which had sold them to Step was contacted by an Iranian company which was searching for T6-7075. Which Iranian company? Carvana, of course. Just a different name for the same customers: the Jafaris. And what end use did Carvana declare for justifying its quest for T6? Carvana told the Italian firm it needed hight-strength aluminium for the making of Daimler Chrysler truck parts. And can you guess what Step had told Alcoa while searching for T6, the very T6 which triggered the entire investigative work? Step needed Alcoa aluminium for the making of Daimler Chrysler trucks. Same cover story, same suspects. And looking at Carvana’s story, suspicion increases. Until recently, Carvana was not a private firm, but rather a firm owned by Bank Saderat of Iran, which later on sold it to the company’s management. Last September, Washington blacklisted Bank Saderat of Iran, charging it of financing terrorist groups.
In any case, the Italian firm never did business with Carvana: the selling of T6 to the Iranian firm was stopped by Italian intelligence. So, did everything get worked out eventually? Unfortunately this is not the case. New unclosed gaps will certainly be found: maybe a new fake rubber stamp and a new European firm selling T6 and not asking too many questions. Iran under Ahmadinejad will be able to acquire other strategic equipment by exploiting these gaps in the dual-use legislation and trade and by exploiting the gaps of international collaboration. For example, Turkish authorities asked for information on European countries involved in the Jafari's businesses. Without that information, it would be impossible for them to effectively conclude their investigative work. However, they haven’t received any yet, not even the information they have asked for from Italy.