FROM MODENA TO TEHERAN
Originally published in L’Espresso, 28 December 2006
Is it possible to export dual-use items to a country charged with wanting to build the atomic bomb, without incurring any risks? Yes, in Italy you can. In Italy, you can sell special alloys which require a particular export license without incurring any sanctions. You can sell high strength aluminium alloys which could be of use in building missile parts and centrifuge components without receiving any penalty whatsoever. This is what the Modena magistrate concluded after investigating “Commerciale Fond,” the Italian firm based in Modena (Northern Italy) which sold aluminium T6-7075 since 2002 to Step, a firm owned by the Iranian family of Jafari. And this material could possibly have reached Iran, apart from the last container which was seized in Gurbulak by the Turkish customs authorities last year.
Immediately after it was seized, the Italian secret service, SISMI, was alerted and some Italian intelligence top dogs working in counter-proliferation visited the Procura of Modena (legal offices of Modena) and the Commerciale Fond’s offices. But then the investigative work concerning this case was assigned to Italian Customs Authorities, a team with a poor investigative record and lack of tools, while the Procura didn’t carry out any search in the firms’ offices, not even a rogatory or a technical inspection of the aluminium items seized in Gurbulak.
What’s more, special units of Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza (Italian police forces) who normally investigate such matters were never called in for this case, even though it was considered a serious one. Serious because, when the Turkish Atomic Energy Agency experts examined the aluminium bars sold by the Italian firm, they didn’t have any doubt: those bars destined to Iran were aluminium T6-7075, dual-use items which require an export license. Speaking to the local media under the cloak of anonymity, a Turkish Atomic Energy Agency expert explained that those aluminium bars could likely be used for making centrifuges to enrich uranium, indeed a crucial step in building an atomic bomb. “7075-T6 aluminium tubes are used as rotors in P1 centrifuges,” explains to L’Espresso former U.N. Weapons inspector David Albright. “The dimensions can indicate strongly a possible centrifuge end use,” he says, adding that if the aluminium items are solid, they can be of use in making centrifuge end caps.
T6-7075 aluminium is not difficult to find. Commerciale Fond had this material stored in its warehouse to be supplied to some Italian firms linked to Ferrari. However, T6-7075 is a kind of material considered under surveillance and all the members of the so-called Nuclear Suppliers Group apply restrictive export rules to this alloy, as it could be of use in the nuclear field. Italian firms which violate these export rules could serve two years in jail. Any Italian firm which wants to sell T6 is required to ask for permission from the national authority on dual-use exports: the Divisione IV of the Direzione Generale per la Politica Commerciale at the Ministero del Commercio Internazionale (internal offices of the Minister of International Commerce). “We evaluate which country the firm wants to export the dual-use items to,” explains an official of the Divisione IV, “we evaluate the kind of product the firm wants to export and, above all, the end user of that product. Then we decide whether to issue a license or nor to the firm, also asking for advice from nuclear and chemical experts. Many firms, however, aren’t even aware that their products are dual-use.” And this is exactly what Commerciale Fond bosses said. They went to visit the Modena magistrate, bringing with them documents detailing their business with Step: they have sold Step aluminium T6 four times in three years, for a total amount of six tons for a total worth of € 30,000. “But we sold it in good faith,” they said, “we didn’t know we were supposed to apply for a license”. The magistrate decided in their favour and dismissed and closed the case. Why? “They were not working in bad faith, they didn’t know the dual-use laws, these transactions involved a modest amount of money and there is no further circumstantial evidence.” The Giudice per le Indagini Preliminari accepted this conclusion of the Modena magistrate and that’s the way the case was dismissed one month ago. Even had it not been dismissed, any criminal offense would have been cancelled in any case by the recently approved general pardon.
What mostly surprises us, however, is that formula: “there is no further circumstantial evidence”. Has ‘further circumstantial evidence’ been searched for? And what was the precise role of the Italian intelligence in this story? At the beginning, SISMI agents were all over the case, but then they disappeared.. “Everything is in the hands of General Gruner,” customs authorities told us, as soon as we asked permission to speak with Dr. Antonio Fusco, the customs official who investigated the case for the Procura of Modena. A SISMI agent went to the offices of Commerciale Fond, the Italian firm which sold T6-7075 and without showing any identifying badge, asked the firm for permission to examine documents concerning the selling of T6 to the Iranians of Step. “Let me know if you are asked to provide further quantities of this material,” he ordered Fond, leaving the firm only a generic email contact like any you can find on the Internet.
Later on, the SISMI agent suggested via email that the firm stop any further selling of high strength aluminium, but he did not contribute to investigations at all. “Two of the SISMI top dogs came to Modena. One of them was military, a General of the Guardia di Finanza, whereas the other was the head of intelligence’s counter-proliferation unit. They asked the investigators whether they might be interested in recovering the aluminium sold by the Italian firm to Step.” Of course investigators were interested - our source assured us - but in order to activate an international rogatory to recover the material, investigators needed official notice, whereas after that first and only visit, the SISMI agents disappeared.” So in the end, no rogatory took place. No recovery, nothing.
The Procura of Modena simply conducted its investigations on invoices, customs bills of entry and emails: the sorts of papers in which technical descriptions are reported in a perfunctory way, to say the least. For example, going through the customs bills of entry, one can note that the aluminium hardening “T6” has been totally omitted. Without a technical examination of the aluminium items sold by the Italian firm, it is almost impossible to have reliable indications of the possible use of those items. “To reconstruct their possible use,” explains an expert to L’Espresso – an expert who conducted inspections for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- “one needs an accurate description of those items and their technical specifications, but according to the available data, I think they could be of use in the making of missiles.”
L’Espresso also submitted the technical description gathered by the Modena magistrate to an international analyst, who concluded that the available information was not enough to establish the intended use. “This material could be for a multitude of uses, both for civil purposes and military ones,” he said. “As for the dimensions: the diameters appear to be too large to be for early UK, Dutch, Pakistani or Russian centrifuge designs,” all kinds of designs that Iranians could have copied or obtained illicitely.
Tehran is likely to be hungry for aluminium T6-7075: it is a crucial material in the making of missiles and centrifuges as well. Iranian negotiators told the IAEA that they are able to produce their own T6. However, David Albright is a bit skeptical about this. Is it possible that Iran is purchasing high-strength aluminium in Italy and Europe to be used for its centrifuge programme? “Iran may very well be buying high strength aluminium for their P1s,” the U.N. former weapons inspector told L’Espresso. And indeed buying raw materials rather than finished items is certainly less dangerous: finished items could be spotted much more easily, thus exposing sellers and brokers to a high risk, whereas the selling and acquiring of raw materials is indeed less dangerous, even when the final end-user is a front company, as the Modena case demonstrates. In fact, the aluminium bars sold by Commerciale Fond to Step were meant to be sent to Shadi Oil Industries of Tehran. This name seems to refer to an oil company – however, no oil expert has ever heard of it and there’s no mention of it in commercial databases available in Tehran. Checking the Shadi address, one can only find a food market there. And so ‘Shadi’, which in Farsi means ‘happiness,’ would have certainly made someone happy, but exactly whom is a mystery. And you will certainly not find that name mentioned in the Modena investigative documents, as good faith is apparently enough for Italian law. Good faith can clear even the most dangerous dual-use items.