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The production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and their proliferation pose a serious threat to international peace and security. They can also destabilise entire regions.

The proliferation of Nuclear, Biological or Chemical (NBC) WMDs, or the goods and technologies used to manufacture them, as well as corresponding weapon delivery systems (for example missiles and drones), including the know-how required for this purpose, is referred to as proliferation.


Despite some considerable technological progress of their own, states striving for weapons of mass destruction (countries from which it is to be feared that NBC weapons will be used in an armed conflict or their use is threatened to enforce political goals) remain dependent on the global market for the development and production of such weapons and delivery systems. Among other things, they try to procure necessary goods in Germany by circumventing licensing requirements and export bans. The direct procurement of such goods is now rather the exception. The existing strict German and European export control regulations to prevent such purchases have led to a change in the purchasing and procurement behaviour of proliferation-relevant states.

Circumvention Attempts

In order to circumvent an export ban by the licensing authorities, those states procure these products via third countries (known as circumventing exports), use front companies or submit false information about their intended use by making “dual-use” goods (products that can be used for both civilian and military purposes which are also subject to export controls). Direct financing of such transactions and products from the relevant states is also the exception. Instead, this takes place via company and bank networks in order to disguise the origin of the buyer as well.

For students and scientists from proliferation-relevant countries, German universities, universities of applied sciences, scientific institutes and research societies, as well as research departments in industry, are also possible sources for the acquisition of proliferation-related knowledge.


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is one of the four countries in the world that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its related security agreements. The country operates an extensive military nuclear and missile technology programme in addition to a civilian one.

Ever since its founding, Pakistan has been in an almost constant state of tension with India. The reason for this is the still unresolved conflict over the Kashmir region. The expansion of its own nuclear weapons potential through the development and deployment of new nuclear-capable missiles and the increase in the production of fissile materials continues to be of great importance to Pakistan.

In 2020, there were also indications in Germany and numerous other Western countries of proliferation-relevant Pakistani procurement attempts. Indications do not only arise if the goods to be procured can obviously be used in a WMD programme. The methodical procedure for procuring the goods (for example, by means of covert procurement networks consisting of front companies and intermediaries) or existing knowledge about the recipient and end user can also indicate a proliferation-relevant procurement background. The focus was particularly on goods with a possible use in the field of nuclear technology.

Correspondingly, intensive and covert efforts are also to be expected in the future. The reconnaissance and prevention of proliferation-relevant Pakistani procurement attempts thus continues to be one of the focal points of the counter-proliferation activities of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).


Iranian procurement efforts continue to be the focus of proliferation defence. In this context, the clarification of possible Iranian proliferation efforts is a high priority for both the nuclear programme there and for the ambitious and internationally sanctioned missile and launcher technology programme.

Since the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) on 8 May 2018, the reinstatement or expansion of sanctions against facilities and individuals in Iran, and Iran’s gradual suspension of JCPoA agreements since 2019, the nuclear deal is in a precarious state. The reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) state a consistent removal of Iran from essential JCPoA restrictions. At the end of 2020, the stockpile of low-enriched uranium is 14 times above the permitted upper limit. In addition, Iran has expanded its diverse research and development work with advanced centrifuges and is using these machines for uranium enrichment in contravention of the agreement.

Furthermore, Iran is pursuing one of the most extensive missile programmes in the Middle East. Among other things, Iran is accused of supplying missile and drone technology to various state and non-state actors in the Middle Eastern region, in contravention of applicable UN Security Council resolutions.

Convictions for Violation of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act (AWG in German)

On 15 May 2020, the Regional Court of Frankfurt am Main (Hesse) sentenced a businessman to five years in prison for violating the AWG. The sentence is final. The convicted man had illegally delivered printing machines and accessories to Iran. The machines would have enabled the Revolutionary Guards to produce banknotes. The Federal Court of Justice had partially overturned the initial verdict from 2018. The court considered the confession, which had been made in the meantime, as mitigating the punishment, but by way of aggravating the punishment, the court considered the “high criminal energy” of the convicted man, who had known what he was getting into with the multi-million dollar deal.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing poor economic situation, the indications of proliferation-relevant procurement attempts by Iran for its nuclear programme increased in 2020. However, a violation of the JCPoA could not be established in these cases so far. The procedure established by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which allows Iran to obtain NSG-listed goods and dual-use goods after prior approval by the Security Council (via the so-called “procurement channel”), remains in place.

Continuing Situation

The ambitious Iranian launcher technology/missile programme is not covered by the provisions of the JCPoA. Procurement activities in Germany are persistently high in this regard. With an upward trend, they roughly corresponded to the level of the previous year.
In September 2020, the Regional Court of Würzburg (Bavaria) convicted a Chinese managing director and one of his employees with German citizenship for violating the Foreign Trade Act. The managing director had commercially exported dual-use goods to Iran without authorisation. The employee of the company assisted him in doing so. In two cases, both had exported proliferation-relevant machines to Iran with the involvement of Iranian procurement companies, deceiving the responsible export control authorities.

Actual use of the machines in Iran’s missile technology programme cannot be ruled out. The two defendants made a full confession and the Chinese businessman was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of two years and nine months, while the German national was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of one year and six months suspended. The verdict is legally binding. The BfV assisted the investigating authorities.

North Korea

North Korea has an advanced nuclear weapons and missile programme and repeatedly tests short-range ballistic missiles. On the occasion of the military parade celebrating the 75th birthday of the North Korean Workers’ Party on 10 October 2020, the regime also presented a new long-range missile.

The threat of the pandemic led to the closure of the borders and the complete isolation of North Korea at the beginning of 2020. Since any import of goods from abroad is also considered a potential source of danger for the import of the virus, the danger of proliferation-relevant procurement of goods from Germany is currently considered low. However, since North Korea had expressed interest in dual-use goods in Germany until the beginning of the restrictive corona protection measures, the current infection protection measures are only temporarily delaying North Korea’s procurement efforts.

North Korea continues to strive to increase its nuclear power. Therefore, activities to procure proliferation-relevant goods can also be expected in the future. Since the regime attaches absolute priority to the further development of the nuclear weapons programme, the state-controlled national economy is linked in every respect to its financing. Thus, any procurement of foreign currency by North Korea will continue to be accompanied by indirect proliferation financing.


Following Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and admission as a State Party to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), large quantities of chemical weapons and warfare agents were destroyed under international supervision in 2014. However, it can now be assumed that Syria’s initial declaration of chemical weapons stockpiles was incomplete and that not all stockpiles have been destroyed.

For example, in a report dated 8 April 2020, the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) identified the Syrian Air Force as the perpetrator of three chemical weapons attacks in March 2017 near the Syrian village of Ltamenah (see OPCW homepage of 22 December 2020). Despite the comprehensive restrictive measures against the Syrian regime, which were again extended by one year by the Council of the European Union in October 2020, continued proliferation-relevant procurement efforts by Syria can also be assumed in Germany. The Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which is considered the main sponsor of Syria’s WMD programmes, plays a significant role in this and continues to use a network of various front companies and intermediaries.

The progressive stabilisation of the Syrian regime and the associated reconstruction of the country also give rise to expectations that the research, development and production of military programmes in Syria will be expanded, which is likely to include proliferation-relevant goods. The focus remains on laboratory-specific equipment, which suggests the establishment and expansion of chemical and biological laboratories. For 2020, the procurement activities identified in Germany are at a low level overall.

New Intelligence Focus: Russia

In response to Russia’s actions that contributed to destabilising the situation in Ukraine, in particular failing to take steps to prevent the flow of arms, equipment and combatants across the Russian-Ukrainian border, the EU imposed an arms embargo and trade restrictions on “dual-use” goods and equipment for the energy sector on 31 July 2014 (Decision 2014/512/CFSP, as well as EU Regulation 833/2014 of 31 July 2014). In addition, restrictions were imposed on capital market access for listed Russian state banks and companies in the defence and oil sectors Further EU sanctions against Russia are regulated in EU Regulation No. 269/2014 of 17 March 2014 and No. 692/2014 of 23 June 2014.

For some time now, the BfV has had indications of Russian proliferation-related activities using state and semi-state actors and circumventing sanctions and concealment of actual end users. In the meantime, the BfV has been able to verify an increasing number of actual indications of proliferation-relevant procurement attempts involving Russian intelligence services with a concrete connection to Germany. The products procured are predominantly dual-use goods that are to be put to a military or proliferation-relevant end use. Despite unclear information on the intended use and end use, the BfV’s counter-proliferation unit was able in some cases to make a concrete assignment to a specific area of the Russian weapons programme. Intensive Russian procurement efforts are also to be expected in the future.

Indictment for Violation of AWG

On 8 October 2020, the Office of the Federal Public Prosecutor brought charges against two German nationals before the State Protection Senate of the Hanseatic Higher Regional Court in Hamburg. One of the defendants is accused of violations of the AWG. In seven cases, he is alleged to have sold machine tools worth around €8M to a state-owned arms company on a commercial basis and for the secret service of a foreign power with the support of the second accused. The equipment is used to manufacture missile systems, some of which are nuclear-capable, for the Russian Armed Forces.

Illegal Procurement Efforts for Foreign Military Space Programmes

The possible use of space-based technology and systems in the context of and in the run-up to conflicts is gaining massive importance for many states. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that Germany and its allies could also be victims of such a deployment.
The following scenarios, for example, could arise in connection with such conflicts:

  • Obtaining a strategic advantage through targeted disruption or destruction of communication satellites
  • Using/re-purposing satellites as weapons
  • Cyberattacks through and against satellites
  • Use of military/intelligence observation and surveillance satellites

The German space industry bundles new high-tech fields such as electronics, robotics, measurement and control technology and new materials. As one of the world’s leading producers of such technologies, it is a target of illegal procurement activities by states that could also use their own space programmes for military and intelligence purposes to the detriment of German or European interests.

Russia and China in particular use procurement channels and methods as in the context of “classical” proliferation. Using state, semi-state and intelligence actors, as well as circumventing sanctions and concealing the end use, they try to obtain satellite or space weapons technology that can be used for military and intelligence purposes.

Both states need advanced technology in addition to the knowledge of German companies to modernise and expand their position and presence in space. The BfV’s counter-proliferation unit therefore monitors corresponding illegal and clandestine procurement attempts with the aim of clarifying and preventing them.