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Che cosa!

January 14, 2010

Italian companies—with Rome’s backing—have equipped Iran’s military and contributed to the regime’s satellite and possibly nuclear programs.

By Giulio Meotti


When it comes to appeasing the Islamic Republic, no other Western nation has stooped lower than Italy. Amid the international outrage over the Iranian regime’s brutalization of its own people, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned Europe “must not burn every bridge because Iran is a key figure” in the region. While rejecting any military action to stop Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, Mr. Frattini urged the West to “avoid those [sanctions] that are connected with Iranian national pride.” What may sound like a naïve appeal for more failed diplomacy may just as easily be thought of as a bid to secure lucrative business interests.

To understand Mr. Frattini’s concerns for “Iranian national pride,” one has to know that next to Germany—where such bogus arguments against economic sanctions are also very popular—Italy is Iran’s most important European trade partner. The list of about 1,000 Italian companies active in Iran includes such household names as Eni—the energy giant is Iran’s biggest business partner in Europe according to the Italian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce—as well as Fiat, Ansaldo, Maire Tecnimont, Danieli and Duferco. Italian companies are not just busy in the civilian and energy sectors—Maire Tecnimont just signed a €200 million gas deal with Iran—but have equipped the regime’s military and contributed to Iran’s satellite and possibly even nuclear weapons program.

Take the case of Carlo Gavazzi Space. The Italian technology company helped Iran with its Mesbah communications satellite program. “Communications satellites” can of course be easily diverted for military purposes and used, for example, as spy satellites and, more ominously, to help pinpoint nuclear strikes. Despite these risks, the Mesbah project enjoyed Rome’s political backing, as La Stampa reported at the time. Italy’s ambassador to Tehran back then, Riccardo Sessa, was even present at the 2003 signing ceremony of the deal, according to Italian news agency ANSA.

Under the terms of the agreement, Carlo Gavazzi Space did not just sell a finished product but also transferred technology and know-how. In a 2005 presentation of the Mesbah project posted on the Internet, L. Zucconi, managing director at Carlo Gavazzi Space, explained that his company “has worked in close cooperation with ITRC (Iran Telecommunication Research Center) / IROST (Iranian Research Organization for Science and Technology) in the design, development and manufacturing of the MESBAH system. . . . The Flight Model has been manufactured partly in Italy and partly in Iran, with the work sharing scheme defined together with ITRC / IROST. . . . The MESBAH satellite will be controlled from one Ground Station located at Teheran and operated by ITRC / IROST personnel. . . . The 1000 (user) terminals to be used for the service will be produced by Iranian Industries.”

“Having initiated the MESBAH project, the I.R. (Islamic Republic) of Iran has acquired a space infrastructure and space capacity,” making Iran “a new player in the space community prepared to face new challenging projects.” Carlo Gavazzi Space “look[s] forward for future cooperation.”

Two months ago, Gen. Mahdi Farahi, director of Iran’s Aerospace Industries, said Carlo Gavazzi Space would also help launch into space the successor model, the Mesbah-2. The Italian company denies this.

Asked about their Iranian business, Carlo Gavazzi Space’s general director, Roberto Aceti, told me Wednesday that his company trusts the “Iranian information about the ultimate use of our satellite,” rejecting any possible military use of their hardware as “unrealistic.”

Another example is Fiat’s subsidiary Iveco. The truck maker has since the early 1990s delivered thousands of vehicles to Iran and boasts on its Web site about its joint-venture assembly line in Iran. The problem is that some of these trucks, as shown on the nearby photograph, can also be used to transport Iranian missiles.

Iranian Opposition members say these trucks also serve another sinister purpose: the public hangings of homosexuals and dissidents. I have seen a photograph showing these executions on Iveco trucks at an October 2007 exhibition in Rome organized by Italy’s largest organization against the death penalty, “Nessuno tocchi Caino.”

Maurizio Pignata, director of Iveco’s press office, assured me Wednesday that their “vehicles, like the ones in the photograph with missiles in Tehran, are always sold for civilian purposes.” He added however that the company “can’t know the ulterior exploit of our vehicles. The photograph of the truck with Iranian rockets shows normal Iveco vehicles converted for different goals. In China they used our vehicles for public executions of prisoners. So we can’t know if our trucks are used in Iran for military or repressive purposes.”

Even the Revolutionary Guard—whose role is to protect the regime and train terrorists—benefits from Italian engineering. The paramilitary security forces purchased frame and design plans of the patrol boat “Levriero” from the Italian company FB Design in 1998. When Italian media reported this and other business deals the company has made with the Iranians, FB Design’s founder and owner, Fabio Buzzi, was surprisingly frank. “It’s true, it’s not a mystery, I sold boats and technology to the Iranians,” he told ANSA in 2008. “We regularly sold design and technology to the Iranian secret services,” he admitted. Mr. Buzzi said in the same interview that he stopped his Iran business only after U.S. officials questioned him in 2005 about his supplies to the Revolutionary Guard.

Citing Pentagon sources, Emanuele Ottolenghi writes in his 2009 book “Under a Mushroom Cloud—Europe, Iran and the Bomb,” that Iranian-made copies of the FB Design Levriero were part of the Revolutionary Guard speedboats that seemed bent on provoking a confrontation with three U.S. warships two years ago. In January 2008, in the Strait of Hormuz, these boats sailed too close to the American vessels and made threats over the radio.

Italians may have also—even if unknowingly—helped to protect Iran’s nuclear program. A spokesman for Seli told me last week that the construction equipment firm was working on several Iranian tunnel projects worth more than €220 million, including for the Tehran metro and water tunnels in Nosud and Kerman. The company’s Web site says that one of the contracts it just recently finished involved the sale of equipment and technical assistance to the Iranian company Ghaem—a Revolutionary Guard firm, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The technical know-how and machinery to build tunnels is of course crucial for the regime’s efforts to hide its nuclear installations. “Intelligence reports have repeatedly suggested that much of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program is being built deep underground, in bunkers that are accessible through tunnels—tunnels that only technology such as the one provided by [German company] Wirth and Seli can build,” a 2008 report by the Israeli Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies concluded.

When asked about his Iran business, the president of Seli, Remo Grandori, told me Wednesday that “Our machines and expertise are not used for military purposes, or we couldn’t have received the authorization of Italian Foreign Ministry.” When I pressed harder, he acknowledged that Seli “tunnels are like large mines. Iran can certainly use these tunnels to hide weapons, but I don’t know anything about it.”

Mr. Grandori also had interesting insights into Rome’s support for Italian companies seeking Iranian contracts. “The Italian embassy in Tehran brokers deals for us, helps us to meet the large supply gap created by U.S. restrictions. There is inevitably a political role in our big deals.”

Despite international sanctions against Iran, Italian exports to the Islamic Republic rose almost 17% in 2008 to €2.17 billion, according to the Italian statistical office. During that same year, overall trade also rose almost 17% to €7 billion, representing more than a quarter of the European Union’s total trade with Iran. For the past three years, Italy has been Iran’s No. 1 European trading partner.

“Iran and Italy were rivals and two great powerhouses in ancient times, but in the contemporary world they are great partners,” the Italian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaims on its Web site.

Created in 1999 following an Italian-Iranian cooperation agreement signed three years earlier under former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the Italian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is today the largest such bilateral chamber in Italy. Its board members not only include business leaders but high-ranking government officials from both sides, including Cesare Ragaglini, Italy’s ambassador at the United Nations, Alberto Bradanini, the Italian ambassador to Tehran, Amedeo Teti, director of commercial policies at the Italian ministry for economic development, and Fereidoun Haghbin, Iran’s ambassador in Rome, who serves as the board’s honorary chairman.

The Italian-Iranian political-industrial complex was on full display at a 2008 Tehran military parade, where slogans such as “Israel Must be Wiped off the Map” were written on Shihab-3 missiles that can reach the Jewish state. Unlike other European Union countries who avoid sending emissaries to such hate-filled rallies, Vittorio Maria Boccia, Italy’s military attaché in Tehran, was seated right among the assorted ayatollahs and generals. The other Western diplomat who attended this spectacle was Mr. Boccia’s German colleague. Call it the Rome-Berlin-Tehran Axis.

The sturdy link between Italy and Iran has also irked the Obama administration. When asked about Rome’s dealings with Tehran, David Thorne, U.S. Ambassador to Italy, told reporters after taking office two months ago that “there are certain Italian foreign policy positions which continue to concern us.”

Rome’s policies toward Iran, however, continue to follow the old Roman proverb. “Pecunia non olet” or “Money Doesn’t Smell.” When asked about his business ties to Iran, Eni’s chief executive Paolo Scaroni told Forbes magazine in 2007: “I intend to respect Italian laws, not the American ones. You don’t find oil in Switzerland.”

Italy is like the two-faced Roman god Janus. Rhetorically, Rome is part of the Western front against the Iranian regime. Mr. Berlusconi even called Ahmadinejad “Hitler.” But when it comes to translating this rhetoric into foreign policy, business interests trump everything else.

Next month, Mr. Berlusconi, who claims to be a great friend of the Jewish state, will speak in the Israeli parliament. It would be a good opportunity for him to prove his friendship by finally announcing tough economic sanctions against Iran.

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