Their comments this week came as the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was set to meet Monday to assess its ongoing investigation into the Iranian program ... AFP
by Michael Adler
VIENNA - Iran is continuing to buy parts for centrifuges abroad, often skirting sanctions and export controls, as it seeks to supply a program which the United States charges is secretly developing nuclear weapons, Western intelligence officials said.
Their comments this week came as the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was set to meet Monday to assess its ongoing investigation into the Iranian program and its links to the international nuclear smuggling network that was run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced father of Pakistan's atomic bomb.
Khan was arrested earlier this year in Pakistan and confessed to his activities but IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei has said these were just the "tip of an iceberg" of international trafficking in nuclear technology and materials which the IAEA seeks to monitor.
IAEA officials refused to comment on the intelligence sources' information but the IAEA had in a report September 1 said it was "continuing to pursue its investigation of the supply routes and sources of conversion and enrichment technology and the sources of related equipment and nuclear and non-nuclear materials."
A non-US intelligence official said Iran has been getting material not only from Pakistan.
Iran claims its nuclear program is strictly peaceful and that it has had to use the black market in order to skirt sanctions against it acquiring nuclear technology.
"There are companies all over Europe involved. The Iranians want to keep these channels open for ongoing operations and future operations," the official said.
The official said the Iranians have "for centrifuge production, kept purchasing materials in recent months."
This was in Russia but also "Iranian scientists, including nuclear scientists, are coming and going also to and from China," the official said.
Analysts said that while Iran has civilian nuclear programs with China and with Russia, which is building a reactor in Iran, Iran uses front companies to get around export controls on sensitive equipment.
While the United States has sanctions against selling nuclear-related equipment to Iran, even these can sometimes be defeated by selling through foreign subsidiaries or middlemen.
China and Russia are both members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which seeks to fight proliferation of nuclear weapons through guidelines for nuclear and nuclear-related exports.
David Albright, a former nuclear weapons inspector and head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said the Iranians have simply continued using front companies in different countries "to buy things needed in centrifuges," which are machines used to enrich uranium.
The Iranians are both using selling through foreign subsidiaries to skirt export controls and buying "items that aren't controlled but are needed in centrifuges," Albright said.
"The interest is that this trafficking continues" since the crackdown on Khan's network and after Iran promised to suspend uranium enrichment, including a brief but now withdrawn promise not to manufacture, assemble and test centrifuges, Albright said.
He said the problem with lists the NSG compiles of dual-use equipment, meaning with both civilian and military applications, was that "companies and governments don't want to limit competition so they limit what's on the list."
Also, a country can claim that dual-use items such as high-speed cameras useful in weaponization steps are needed for peaceful purposes.
In addition, these lists have no legal weight since export controls are a matter for individual countries.
Non-proliferation expert Gary Samore, from London's International Institude for Strategic Studies said: "Obviously the Iranian enrichment program at least in the beginning depended on AQ Khan. The issue is whether there is still a key bottleneck in the program that requires foreign supplies.
He said a question was "can the Iranians make maraging steel," which is a key component in making the rotors that spin in centrifuges to refine the uranium isotope U-235 which is the explosive for an atomic bomb.
An intelligence official said it would be "most probably less than a year before the Iranians will be in control of the technology to enrich uranium."
And he said "by that time they would have enough feed material for their centrifuges so that they won't be dependent on foreign inputs."
Iran has told the IAEA it plans to convert 37 tons of uranium yellowcake into the uranium hexafluoride gas that is the feed material for enriching uranium. Experts said this would supply enough gas to make enriched uranium that could make from one to several bombs.
Another source, a diplomat close to the IAEA, said the Iranians were "almost self-sufficient" in centrifuge technology, but lacked magnets needed to turn the rotors.