How Iran spilled the beans implicating Pakistan
WASHINGTON: Until the middle of January this year, Iranian officials continued to insist that they obtained sensitive centrifuge drawings and components through “intermediaries” and that they did not know the original source of the items.
According to David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), Iran had many other important suppliers. Individuals and companies in Europe and the Middle East also played a key role in supplying Iran’s centrifuge programme. China was the most important supplier to Iran’s programme to produce uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride, the highly corrosive gas used in centrifuges. Although Iran encountered many difficulties in making and operating centrifuges, postponing by many years the construction of a pilot centrifuge plant, it appears to have secretly achieved self-sufficiency in centrifuge manufacturing by the mid and late 1990s.
The ISIS experts said although Western intelligence agencies detected many of Iran’s sensitive procurements, they missed some key ones. Because it had only incomplete information, the United States had trouble convincing its allies until 2002 or 2003 that Iran’s effort to build secret gas centrifuge facilities had reached an advanced state. Lacking actionable information or intrusive inspections, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was unable to determine until recently that Iran had significantly violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Mr Albright and Mr Hinderstein said that in 1987, Iran made a significant breakthrough, obtaining a complete set of centrifuge drawings and some centrifuge components. This specific procurement may have been part of a much larger package that helped Iran understand and build centrifuges. “Armed with component specifications and drawings, Iran would be able to design and implement a strategy to develop a reliable centrifuge and create a manufacturing infrastructure to make thousands of centrifuges. It would be able to find foreign companies to make specific components, often unwittingly. In parallel, it could locate companies that would sell the equipment Iran needed to make the components itself,” they pointed out.
The ISIS team said Iran acquired drawings of a modified variant of an early-generation Urenco centrifuge built by the Netherlands. Some experts familiar with these drawings have assessed that, based on the design’s materials, dimensions and tolerances it is a modified precursor to the Dutch M4 centrifuge. IAEA inspectors noticed that someone modified the design in distinctive ways. In addition, the original drawings were shown to inspectors and their labels are in English, not Dutch or German. According to intelligence information, the design resembles one built by Pakistan in the 1980s and early 1990s that is sometimes called the P1. In addition, the centrifuge components Iran bought match those bought by Pakistan. There was other evidence that pointed to Pakistan as the source of the drawings and of at least some of the components. Much of the highly enriched uranium that the IAEA found in Iran by taking environmental samples may be consistent with material produced in Pakistan.
Last autumn, Iran provided the IAEA with a list of five middlemen and company officials who, it said, provided the drawings and other key items. Iran characterised these middlemen, who are European and Middle Eastern, as putting together orders—buying items from various companies and delivering them to Iran.. Iran’s statement to the IAEA implied that one or more of the three Germans who were identified as middlemen obtained a classified centrifuge design from Pakistan and sold it to Iran. Mr Albright and Mr Hinderstein said that in late 2003 Iran provided the IAEA with a long list of equipment suppliers, including when the equipment was purchased. Iran has also not removed or otherwise hidden nameplates that contain company names and serial numbers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of the items Iran wanted were loosely controlled by national or international export controls. Between 1993 and 1995, it received enough components through middlemen to build 500 centrifuges. It is from centrifuges made from these imported components that traces of highly enriched uranium have been found by the IAEA, at both the site at Natanz and at Kalaye Electric in Tehran. —Khalid Hasan