/ 18 February 2005

How Sasol firm sold WMD chemicals to Iran

A Sasol group company, African Amines, has illegally exported chemicals to Iran that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons.

This emerges from a plea bargain agreement in the Durban Regional Court, struck last November, which appears to have saved the multibillion-rand petrochemical company from international embarrassment.

As part of the plea bargain, African Amines — based in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal — was ordered to pay a R100 000 fine for contravening the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act.

Among the reasons why the company got off lightly was that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) accepted in the written plea agreement that the chemicals were exported ”in the ordinary course of business to commercial end users” and that they ”were not supplied to a military or terrorist entity for use as chemical warfare agents”.

However, this is partly contradicted by information that the Iranian company which received the chemical consignments from African Amines, has sparked proliferation concerns abroad.

The company, Sasadja Moavenate Bazargani, has reportedly been listed by the German government as ”a risky end-user”. A Japanese government website includes the firm on a weapons of mass destruction end-user watch list relating to missile proliferation concerns.

John Black and Associates, a global trade consulting company, advises clients on its website to screen their transactions against the Japanese government’s end-user watch list.

It is not known whether the NPA knew this when it entered into the plea bargain.

Sasol is a global player, with a market capitalisation of well over R55-billion. The company is listed on both the JSE Securities Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange.

The revelation that a company in the Sasol group illegally exported sensitive chemicals to Iran may complicate the company’s relationship with Western investors, particularly in United States, which brands Iran a ”rogue state” and accuses it of having a covert nuclear weapons programme.

Iran, which has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, admits a civilian programme, but denies military intent. 

The South African government subscribes to non-proliferation treaties relating to weapons of mass destruction. According to the plea agreement, ”the sincerity of the South African government’s undertaking in [this] regard is monitored by the United Nations and bodies created under its auspices”.

Last September a South African and two foreigners resident in South Africa were arrested in Gauteng for allegedly conspiring to supply nuclear equipment to Libya. The matter is before the courts and has attracted much publicity.

The case against African Amines was brought before the Durban Regional Court two months later, but without the attendant publicity because a plea bargain had been struck. Sasol’s relationship with African Amines was not reported at the time.

Sasol’s website states that it owns a 50% stake in African Amines. Company registration records show that Sasol is represented on the board. The remaining shares are held by a company called Air Products South Africa.

African Amines, according to Air Products’s online newsletter, is ”Africa’s only producer of alkyl amines such as methylamines and iso-polyamines, which are used in the explosives, water treatment and agrochemical industries”.

The charge against African Amines — to which the company pleaded guilty — is that it knowingly exported 120 tonnes of a substance called dimethylamine to Iran in March 2003 without a permit issued by the Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Another 12 tonnes were exported to an Australian company, Tennant Limited, in May 2003. Tennant is a public corporation with business interests in the supply of raw materials and fertilizers to companys. It has an ISO 9002 quality assurance accreditation.

Dimethylamine can be used in agricultural herbicides, but is also used as a precursor in the chemical warfare agent tabun. The latter is a nerve agent with which South Africa’s own ”Dr Death”, Wouter Basson, experimented.

The plea agreement states that African Amines contracted with the Iranian and Australian companies to export the consignments before it was listed as a substance that needed an export permit from the non-proliferation council. But it was listed before the actual exports took place. Although African Amines was aware of this, and began moves to obtain a permit, it exported without one.

However, the impetus for a prosecution did not come from South Africa. The plea agreement states that: ”Knowledge of the two exports came to the attention of a foreign state with which the republic has bilateral agreements. This resulted in a formal complaint being lodged with the republic’s Foreign Affairs Department.”

At the time of going to press, it was not clear which country blew the whistle.

Another Sasol subsidiary, Sasol Polymers Germany, is involved in a $900-million (about R5,4-billion) joint venture with an Iranian state company to build a petrochemical plant. It is due to come on stream late this year.

Sasol spokesperson Johan van Rheede said: ”The goods were exported in the ordinary course of business to commercial end users. The goods were not supplied to a military or terrorist entity for use as chemical warfare agents.”