Small German airport may play major role in Iranian weapons smuggling

March 15, 1995|By New York Times News Service

HASENMOOR, Germany -- The tiny Hartenholm civilian airport here, with its fleet of a dozen aging Cessnas, small wooden building for the local parachute club, snack bar, nine warehouses, and red-and-white-checked control tower, appears to be the idyllic home for weekend and business fliers.

But the airport, which, because of its size, operates largely beyond the scrutiny of the customs authorities, is believed to be one of dozens of transit points used by the Iranian government to smuggle, from Europe to Iran, weapons parts and advanced technology used to develop nuclear weapons, Western intelligence officials say.

Some intelligence officials say that, despite an embargo imposed by the West, Iran could have a nuclear capability in five years.

Intelligence officials say the airport is part of an elaborate network set up by Iran's Islamic government throughout Europe, Russia and the Central Asian republics.

The airport, which is about 35 miles north of Hamburg, is owned by three Iranians who are reputed to be among the biggest arms dealers in Europe, the officials say.

And some German officials say they now suspect that some Iranians who have used the airport for arms trafficking, backed by the Tehran government, may be implicated in the mysterious death in 1987 in a Geneva hotel room of Uwe Barschel, the former premier of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the airport is located.

Intelligence agencies say they are so overwhelmed by the scope of the Iranian smuggling operation that it is almost impossible to monitor. The clandestine equipment, they said, is often broken down into nearly unidentifiable parts and shipped out from different countries and by different routes.

Iranian officials deny that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal. Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has called for all nuclear weapons programs in the Middle East to be disclosed and has chastised Israel for refusing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed.

German intelligence officials said that they had mounted an ambitious program to halt the flow of arms-related technology to Iran. "There was no way the Germans were ever willing to provide German technology to help the Iranians," Bernd Schmidbauer, the chancellery minister in charge of intelligence coordination, said when asked about Iran's smuggling network. "This has been our position and is adhered to strictly."

Intelligence officials said that the Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons technology mirrors the push by President Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear bomb in Iraq over the last 15 years. The Iranians use many of the old Iraqi smuggling routes and contacts, officials said. But, they added, Iran, unlike Iraq, is able to mask many acquisitions because of its nuclear energy program.

The small airport, tucked in rolling pastureland and with a 2,000-foot runway, would seem to be of little use to the Iranians. It is built for light single- and twin-engine aircraft that cannot fly directly to Iran.

But liberal European Community aviation guidelines permit civilian airports to operate free from scrutiny by customs authorities.

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