Germany has detained several men suspected of buying technology for a Russian-built nuclear reactor in Iran, opening the door to a diplomatic feud between the European Union and Russia, Western diplomats said.
Diplomats familiar with the case said the arrests had infuriated Russia, which complained to members of the UN Security Council's Iran sanctions committee. That panel oversees compliance with the punitive measures imposed on Tehran for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program.
One European diplomat, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the businessmen were detained at a German airport by the customs police on suspicion of violating a ban on the export of sensitive "dual-use" technology to Iran.
The arrested men are German nationals working for a German firm. The diplomat declined to name the firm and it was not immediately clear how many men were detained or what items they had purchased for the Bushehr plant.
The diplomats said the detained Germans were acquiring equipment on behalf of Russia and its Bushehr light-water nuclear power reactor in Iran, scheduled to open in August.
The first UN sanctions resolution against Iran, passed in 2006, exempted technology for light-water reactors like Bushehr, which are seen as less of a proliferation risk than heavy-water reactors, the spent fuel from which is rich in bomb-grade plutonium.
But the European Union's own internal directives on implementing UN steps against Iran go further than the UN sanctions resolutions and do not exempt the Bushehr reactor, which was why Germany arrested the men, diplomats said.
"It may be allowed under Security Council resolutions, but it's not allowed under EU rules," a European diplomat told Reuters. "Perhaps Russia wasn't aware of it."
Nuclear security expert David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and current head of the Institute for Science and International Security think tank, said Germany might be trying to send a message to Russia that it needs to be more aggressive in implementing the UN sanctions against Tehran.
"Perhaps Germany is pushing back on Russia's unwillingness to enforce the sanctions on dual-use technology for Iran," Albright said.
A spokeswoman for Germany's UN mission said she could neither confirm nor deny the diplomats' assertions. Russia's UN mission also declined to comment.