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Bonn Probes Charges of Poison Gas Aid to Iran

June 28, 1989|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

BONN — The West German government said Tuesday that an Iranian diplomat suspected of trying to arrange for the shipment of chemicals used in making poison gas has already left West Germany.

Foreign Ministry officials said they had called the Iranian Embassy on Tuesday morning to demand that the diplomat be sent home and were told that he is already back in Tehran and will not be returning to West Germany.

The Bonn government said it is initiating an investigation into U.S. allegations that a Duesseldorf firm acted as broker in arranging the sale to Iran of chemicals used in the manufacture of mustard gas.

The Duesseldorf company was not further identified, either by U.S. or West German officials.

U.S. government sources disclosed Monday that the West German firm had been enlisted by an Iranian diplomat, Karim Ali Sobhani, described on the diplomatic list as an attache, to find a supplier of thionyl chloride for Iran.

Thionyl chloride has several uses but is an essential ingredient of mustard gas, which the Iranians reportedly produced to counter Iraq's use of poison gas in the Persian Gulf War. The war ended in a cease-fire last August.

Allegedly Supplied Iraq

Charges have been made that West German companies helped build and supply factories in Iraq that were used for the manufacture of chemical weapons.

Earlier this year, there was an investigation into U.S. charges that West German companies were supplying materials for a plant in Libya that was allegedly designed to produce poison gas. Indictments have been issued, but the case has not gone to trial.

Last Wednesday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III brought to the attention of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was visiting Washington, the allegations that a Duesseldorf firm had arranged for a chemical manufacturer in India to produce thionyl chloride for Iran.

U.S. officials said Sobhani was the Iranian middleman in West Germany. Sobhani has also been described as a businessman indicted in the United States for export violations involving chemical materials and high-tech products.

Sobhani was assigned to the Iranian Embassy here in September, 1987. His actual role, sources said, was to arrange for obtaining supplies of war materials for Iran in the war with Iraq.

Genscher asked Baker for the full dossier on the case, and it reached Bonn on Saturday, sources here said Tuesday. After analyzing the charges, West German officials said, an investigation was ordered, and the Iranians were told that the diplomat in question was no longer welcome as an embassy attache. In describing Tuesday's developments, however, the West German Foreign Ministry did not mention Sobhani by name.

According to a Foreign Ministry source, the Iranians said the diplomat had left the country a couple of weeks ago. This suggested that he may have been tipped off that a report of the U.S. investigation was about to be leaked.

U.S. Applauds Decision

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the United States applauds West Germany's decision not to permit the Iranian to return to the country. More generally, she said the United States was satisfied so far with Bonn's reaction.

"We certainly would hope--and have every reason to believe--they are going to look into this," she said.

She said the West German authorities seem to be moving promptly on the basis of information the United States supplied only last weekend.

The West German investigation into the U.S. charges will be conducted, sources said, by officials of both the Finance and Economics ministries, since the charges may involve violations of customs regulations and tax laws.

Officials said the Duesseldorf company may not have violated any West German laws, since it did not supply the chemicals but acted as a broker.

After the scandal over involvement of West German companies in the Libyan plant broke earlier this year, the Bonn government pressed for laws to crack down on suppliers of chemicals suspected of being used in the manufacture of poison gas. The new laws would make it illegal for a West German citizen to "assist" in activities creating poison gas facilities.

But no such laws have been enacted, officials said, and Parliament adjourned last week for a summer recess that will last until September.

Further, the officials said, it is questionable whether a firm would be violating the new laws if it merely supplied advice on where to purchase chemicals from another country.

"Whatever the case," one authority said, "this will be a long and complex investigation."

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