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Iran

Iran embargo violations on trial

Four men stand trial in Hamburg for having violated the Iran trade embargo. A large-scale problem or an isolated case?

With most countries, exporting some sorts of special valves to them wouldn't even be worth a mention. Yet exporting them to Iran is a different matter – it's banned under the EU embargo. Kianzad Ka., Gholamali Ka., Hamid Kh. and Rudolf M. stand accused of having purposefully violated the Iran embargo. They now have to answer to those charges in front of a Hamburg court.

The men are believed to have worked on the delivery of the valves from Germany to Iran and could also have helped set up deliveries from India to Iran. The special parts were, according to the court, shipped to an Iranian company that is responsible for the construction of a heavy water reactor in the Iranian city of Arak. The same reactor could though be used for the production of weapon-grade Plutonium.

Wide-reaching sanctions

Trade with Iran is more heavily restricted than with almost any other country in the world. The reason being,  the international community's concern that Iran – though signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty – might manage to produce an atom bomb.

A general view of a heavy water plant in Arak (Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The valves can be used for the Arak heavy water plant - or for nuclear purposes

The US and the EU, have of late, introduced economic sanctions especially against Iranian banks and the country's energy sector. Aside from the existing ban in importing oil, there has been, since 2012, also a ban on importing gas from the country. Also, payments between European and Iranian banks have been banned. In general, technologies, services and other business that could benefit the Iranian nuclear program have all been banned under the embargo.

Despite the sanctions, Germany remains the most important western trade partner of Tehran and aside from China, the United Arab Emirates, India and South Korea is one of the most important exporters to Iran. In 2012, German companies shipped goods to the value of 2.5 billion euros to Iran.

Sufficient controls?

The decision what can and what can't be exported to Iran, can be difficult to decide. For some goods can be used both for civilian and for military use. "Even some materials for dental fillings can be exported to Iran," says Michael Tockus, head of the German-Iranian chamber of commerce.

Anything that's to go to Iran has to be registered with customs. In order to avoid problems with Iran, many Germany companies get their exports registered and approved as "unsuspicious." For aside from exporting certain goods to Iran, there are also a number of companies, banks or the revolutionary guards on the EU's list and companies are not allowed to trade with them at all. German companies therefore have to check whether their prospective business partners are listed by the EU.

Iranian rial banknotes

Financial transfers to and from Iran are also affected by the embargo

But the controls are easy to circumvent, says Michael Spaney, spokesman for the initiative "Stop the Bomb," which is campaigning for a tougher line on Tehran. "According to our information, it's relatively easy to make illegal deals with Iran." Middlemen with German passports would start a company based on German laws which then would be less likely to get checked than big international companies. It's also easy, he explains, to simply indicate other countries like Turkey as the destination for your goods.

That was, for instance, the case in the Hamburg trial: To get around the export controls, the four men accused simply named companies in Turkey and Azerbaijan as recipients of the shipments. Eventually the exports would then make it to Iran after all, Spaney explains.

More embargo violations

According to German media, the number of violations of the restrictions on trade with Iran are on the rise. Customs officials are currently investigating 136 cases, 35 more than just a year before. Two thirds of those cases are related to Iran.

But not all of them end up before a court, says Michael Tockuss of the German-Iranian chamber of commerce. "In Germany we don't even have a handful of cases that have made it to court." But he doesn't believe that there's a large-scale problem with exporters sneaking their way around the embargo. "Those are just isolated cases."

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