German firms were selling material to Iran that could be used in missiles, a media report says. Where should we draw the line with "dual use technologies" - and should companies be made more accountable?
Nuclear weapons programs or no nuclear weapons programs, business is business. Many companies will do whatever they can within the law to turn a profit, as long as the old stand-by "keeping politics and business separate" remains current. But in a world of so-called dual-use technologies, it's often hard to see where the line between the two should be drawn. What industrial chemicals can be exported "safely" to countries like Iran?
Reuters news agency reported earlier this month that Iran has been importing a high grade of refined alumina ore from various countries around Europe, which can be used to make armor parts and missile components.
While the ore is not covered by European Union sanctions, it is blocked by new US sanctions, tightened on July 1. The report cited export data from the Global Trade Information Services firm, which said that around 4,000 metric tons of alumina had been sold to Iran between January 2012 and March 2013 - mainly from Germany and France, but also from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and Belgium.
Experts and traders say the high price paid, $700 - $1,000 (535 - 765 euros) a metric ton, and relatively low amounts involved indicated the exports were most likely high purity chemical grade alumina - the implication being that they would be used for weapons.
The report also quoted Mark Gorwitz, a consultant specializing in nuclear and missile-related technologies, who claimed that Iran was now well able to make weapons-grade ceramic composites using chemical alumina.
"Iran definitely has the ability to manufacture missile parts locally," he said. "They've done quite a bit of work on ceramic composites made with alumina, and used for manufacturing armor parts and missile components like nozzles and radomes."
The German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce failed to respond to DW's requests to confirm or deny the report, but Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), was cautious. "Alumina, which is aluminum oxide, can be used for several purposes," he told DW. "You can melt it down to produce high grade aluminum. You can use it in the computer industry, you can make sapphire and different gemstones if you put in small amounts of contaminants."
"You can also use it to make very high-strength, heat-resistant windows," he added. "Sometimes they'll put sapphire windows on the tips of air-to-air missiles, for infra-red guidance and other optical sensors. Now, whether Iran is using it for that I have no idea. The story seems a bit strange to me."
Expensive = weapons?
Elleman was also skeptical of the idea that just because Tehran was spending a lot of money, they would therefore be buying weapons. "I remember the stories of Iraq, and [former Secretery of State] Colin Powell said, 'well you don't use these aluminum cylinders to make artillery rockets, because it's too expensive etc.' The implication was they could only be used for rotors on centrifuges for nuclear purposes, well, it turns out the Iraqis were using them exactly as they claimed - for artillery rockets, and they had real good reason for using that quality."
By the same logic, there is no special reason to assume that Iran is using the alumina ore for anything other than commercial industrial purposes and that it may have increased its orders for the material in anticipation of stricter US sanctions. But the wider question remains - how should western governments regulate the export of dual-use technologies and materials to states that may have questionable intentions?
"Most companies want to be responsible, and if something is not banned, they will sell it. And in my view they should sell it," said Elleman. "We did some consultations on sanctions with a major company in Europe, and they wanted to know, 'We don't want to lose our position in Iran,' because they see that as a huge market once sanctions goes away, but they very much wanted to be within the law."
Though Elleman and his colleagues established that none of the company's exports violated any rules in place at the time (2012), the company decided not to go ahead with the sale anyway. "It could have been used as a substitute related to the manufacture of a certain type of weapon - highly unlikely, but it could," he said. "They were being extremely diligent, but they had every right to be selling it. They decided the reputational cost would be too much, compared to the economic gains - that's what companies have to balance. But there are other companies where it's not as important."