Not long ago, we received a press release that caught our eye — this is not a common occurrence — and was distributed by an NGO called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Based in New York and headed by former US Ambassador to the United Nations Mark D. Wallace, UANI had photos of alleged criminals being hanged in front of spectators in the Iranian cities of Qaem Shahr and Babol. However, the condemned weren't hanging from traditional gallows. They were hanging from construction cranes that had one word painted on them: Atlas.
As in, German heavy-equipment manufacturer Atlas Maschinen GmbH, with whom UANI was clearly upset. Wallace had written a 2011 Los Angeles Times op-ed in which he described his organization's goal of persuading crane manufacturers to stop doing business in Iran as long as the regime expressed such fondness for hanging people from those cranes. Argue all you want about whether or not that's an effective strategy — there are, after all, many other tall things in Iran from which to hang people — but we were curious what it's like to manufacture cranes and then find out from a pissed-off NGO that they're being used for executions.
So we called Fil Filipov, the chairman of Atlas. He was born in Communist Bulgaria in 1946, fled to the US when he was 17, and proceeded to have an extremely successful career in the construction equipment manufacturing industry — you can learn more about Filipov at his website, Filosophies.com. He told us he was unaware of UANI's claims.
"I have no idea if what they say is right or wrong, and I have no plans to respond," Filipov told VICE News. "I don't give a damn what they write."
During the course of our conversation, Filipov said Atlas does business in 58 countries, but he denied doing business in Iran. He insisted multiple times, “I don’t sell to that country.”
But that didn't explain Hydro-Atlas, the company in Tehran that describes itself as the “official representative of Atlas GmbH in Iran … initiated in 1976 with the participation and partnership of the German company Atlas.” We asked Filipov about that.
"I cannot stop anybody from using the Atlas name — you can use it yourself if you want," he said. "In Western Europe, there are probably 30 dealers called Atlas: Atlas Hanover, Atlas Stuttgart, all unrelated to the real Atlas.”
Filipov maintains his company is “fully in compliance with all regulations and trade agreements,” which as far as we can tell, it is. Atlas is a German company, and selling cranes in Iran is not prohibited under any existing UN or EU sanctions. In fact, more than 100 German companies are currently doing business in Iran, and the rest of Europe is equally well-represented.
Being hanged from a crane is a particularly gruesome way to die. When the gallows we're all used to seeing in moves are used, the condemned’s neck often breaks as he falls, which typically causes near-instant death. When someone is hanged from a crane, however, he is slowly lifted from the ground by his neck and left to dangle in the noose. It can take more than 20 minutes to die.
The man hanged in Qaem Shahr had been found guilty of raping schoolchildren. The pair put to death in Babol, of quadruple murder. But Iran also executes homosexuals, political prisoners, and people accused of moharebeh [enmity against God], which has the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights awfully concerned. According to UANI, its campaign has persuaded five large crane manufacturers to pull out of the Iranian market: Konecranes of Finland, UNIC and Tadano of Japan, Germany’s Liebherr, and most notably Connecticut’s Terex. Notable because the company's presidents have included both Filipov and his son Steve, and because the company claimed in 2011 that UANI didn't persuade them to stop doing business in Iran because they'd already stopped doing business in Iran.
We asked UANI spokesman Nathan Carleton what he expects from Atlas.
“Look, we’re not saying that Fil Filipov is personally hanging people from cranes or that he condones the regime’s actions," Carleton said. "All we know is that people are being hung from Atlas cranes, and there are dealerships in Iran calling themselves Atlas crane."
Carleton argued that the photos of the executions that UANI spotted “are the smoking gun” that should persuade Atlas to act. Not surprisingly, Filipov disagreed.
“With the Internet and the way we’re living today, people are free to put my picture next to somebody and say anything,” he said. “It could be a Photoshop thing.”
This was getting us nowhere. So we decided to call Hydro-Atlas in Tehran. “We import parts from Germany under license from Atlas,” a sales rep told us in Farsi, “and we assemble them in our factory in Iran.”
Okay, that was easy. Despite what Filipov said, Atlas clearly has an arrangement with a dealer in Iran — but that's not illegal. And while Filipov was kind enough to offer us the use of the Atlas name, we're sure he wouldn't allow a company to call itself Atlas without actually selling Atlas cranes. So while he was somewhat less than straightforward about Atlas's dealings in Iran, that doesn't mean Atlas has any obligation to act.
“There’s not much they can do except stop selling cranes,” said John Boatright, the Raymond C. Baumhart Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola University Chicago. “And I imagine there are already enough cranes in Iran to conduct quite a few hangings."
According to Joseph DesJardins, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in Minnesota who sits on the board of the Society for Business Ethics, it’s important for a company that finds itself in Atlas’s position to take a forward-looking view. “Iran already has the cranes and can always buy them elsewhere,” he said. “But what about the question of integrity? Ending sales of Coca-Cola in South Africa wouldn’t have ended apartheid, but as a matter of integrity should Coke have pulled out? [They didn’t.] Are you willing to sell your products to just anyone?"
We asked Filipov.
"What can one do?" he said. "The world is full of assholes.”
Additional reporting by Sharoz Makarechi
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @justinrohrlich