Suspected Iranian intelligence agents were among seven people arrested in Italy on suspicion of weapons trafficking to Iran, in an operation that adds to Western diplomatic pressure building over Iran's nuclear program.
Two Iranians – including a journalist accredited to Rome’s foreign press club – and five Italians were arrested in several cities overnight, according to Italian police. Warrants were issued for two other Iranians in operation “sniper.”
All four Iranians “are believed to be members of the Iranian secret services,” the Italian police said in statement. Since last June, police have tapped into a ring that exported weapons, ordnance, and explosives to Iran from Italy and via third countries.
Italian police said the operation stopped the export of a large quantity of tracer bullets, explosives from Eastern Europe, and material for incendiary bombs, Reuters reported from Milan. Police worked with counterparts in Britain, Switzerland, and Romania also stopped a flow of German-made optical equipment and military jackets.
During a news conference, an officer from the Guardia di Finanza headquarters in Milan held a large rifle scope confiscated during one of the arrests. Bullets, pistols, and other military gear were also displayed. Iran is subject to an international arms embargo.
The arrests are a further diplomatic blow for Iran, which has seen its recent efforts to convince the United Nations, the US, and European capitals about the peaceful nature of its controversial nuclear effort dissolve instead this year into renewed momentum for sanctions against Iran.
A nuclear weapons program?
The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, on Monday said Iran was not providing the “necessary cooperation” to determine that its nuclear drive is exclusively peaceful.
On Wednesday, the European Union issued a joint statement saying it was “ready to engage with Iran in order to reach a negotiated solution to the issue,” but that a fourth round of UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions await a negative result.
“Iran’s persistent failure to meet its international obligations require a clear response,” the EU said, in a statement read on the third day of the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors meeting in Vienna.
The EU “would support action by the UNSC if Iran continues not to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear program.”
Consensus has been growing in Washington for more sanctions, as US officials grapple with a string of Iranian moves to boost uranium enrichment levels from 3.5 percent to nearly 20 percent – to eventually provide fuel for a research reactor – and a 10-fold increase in planned enrichment facilities.
UNSC resolutions already require Iran to stop all enrichment work until outstanding issues on the possible military nature of Iran’s nuclear program are resolved.
The arrests in Italy are significant because Rome is Iran’s second-largest trading partner in Europe behind Germany. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has recently stepped up his calls for tougher measures against Iran.
Beyond the EU, Iran’s diplomatic turbulence extended in recent days to Russia, which has had close ties to Tehran for years. Along with China, it routinely opposes sanctions against Iran on the Security Council. Russia has nearly completed Iran’s first nuclear power plant, a $1 billion project at Bushehr.
But Russia has been increasingly raising concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and last week, an official in Moscow stated for the first time that those concerns were behind a delay in delivery of Russia’s sophisticated S-300 air defense system to Iran.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Paris on Monday after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy – who has become Iran’s toughest critic in Europe – said Moscow would back new sanctions if they didn’t lead to a humanitarian crisis in Iran.
“We are optimists and we are not losing the feeling that we may achieve success,” Medvedev said. “Nonetheless, if it doesn’t work out … Russia is ready to consider with our other partners the question of introducing sanctions.”
Reports suggest that a draft of a fourth round of sanctions may be circulated as early as this week, and are likely to be a token tightening of measures already in place against Iran.