The Washington Post asked this question last night — and none of the answers are particularly good. Last year, Western intelligence agencies noticed that Iran wanted to procure a very large amount of a specific type of magnet needed in high-speed centrifuges, and had approached China to buy 100,000 of them. That would be enough to make 50,000 centrifuges, which would exponentially increase the speed of their uranium enrichment:
Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines, according to experts and diplomats, a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.
Purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago, those familiar with the effort said. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.
It’s unclear? China has a seat on the UN Security Council, and is supposedly part of the effort to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. China should have exposed this attempt. The fact that they didn’t, and that Iran went to China to purchase them in the first place, tells us plenty about China’s commitment to the non-proliferation effort in regard to Tehran.
The Post’s Joby Warrick subtly connects the dots between this revelation and the recent declaration from Iran on upgrades to its nuclear capabilities:
The revelation of the new orders for nuclear-sensitive parts coincides with Iran’s announcement that it plans to add thousands of more-advanced, second-generation centrifuges that would allow it to ramp up its production of enriched uranium even further, analysts said.
The answer to the second question in the headlines, at least from Iran’s public statements, seems to be yes, they acquired the magnets they sought. As Warrick notes, that would be a violation of current sanctions on Iran, and punishable by the UN and its members if exposed. If that’s China — and there probably aren’t a lot of countries that can quickly turn around an order for precision magnets on that scale — don’t expect any consequences at all, not while China holds so much Treasury paper, and not while China’s trade leverage with the US remains so large.
The answer to the first question seems pretty apparent, too, although Warrick reports that Iran has begun converting its uranium stockpile into metal form, which makes it more difficult to weaponize:
Complicating Israel’s calculus, Iran has simultaneously taken steps to ease Western anxiety over its nuclear program, chiefly by converting a portion of its uranium stockpile into a metal form that cannot be easily used to make nuclear weapons. A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed Tuesday that the conversion of some of Iran’s uranium stockpile was underway. “This work is being done,” the spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told reporters in Tehran.
A report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, due for release this week, is expected to document Iran’s seemingly contradictory moves, portraying the country as carefully avoiding provocative behavior even as it quietly prepares to increase production at its two uranium-enrichment plants.
Clearly, Iran wants a lot more enriched uranium and wants it quickly. That doesn’t seem to make much sense for a domestic-energy program, given the lack of capacity for Iran to use it at present and in the near future. It makes more sense if Iran wants to start building weapons with fissile material.
Somehow, I doubt this purchase was as benign as the one below: