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The press was full of reports last week about Iran’s new reactor – and allegations that Iran has been smuggling parts for it. The reactor is under construction at a site called Arak; it will generate enough plutonium for a couple of atomic bombs per year when it begins to operate. For this reason, the United States and its partners have been trying to persuade Iran not to complete its construction, or at least, to modify the reactor design so that it generates less plutonium. Iran’s ongoing campaign to buy parts suggests that Iran is committed to finishing the reactor.
This type of reactor is worrisome because of its size and design. It uses a material known as heavy water, is fueled by natural uranium, and will be able to produce about 40 megawatts of thermal power (which translates into about 12 kilograms of plutonium) per year. The use of natural uranium means the reactor can operate without relying on enrichment facilities for its fuel. Heavy water reactors of this size are rare. The three known to be operating in the world are in India, Israel and Pakistan, where they have fueled atomic bombs. In fact, this type of reactor sends a warning that its builder probably has bombs in mind.
According to a December 8 report in Foreign Policy, “in recent months” U.S. officials told a U.N. Panel monitoring Iran sanctions that “Iranian government procurement agents have been increasing their efforts to illicitly obtain equipment” for the reactor at Arak. Since resolution 1737 of December 2006, the United Nations has barred Iran from importing an extensive list of “items, materials, equipment, goods and technology which could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy water-related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.” This list was expanded by subsequent U.N. resolutions, most recently in June 2009, when the United Nations barred sales to Iran of items not on any control list, but which “could contribute to enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy water-related activities or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.” This “catch-all” provision covers any sale to Iran of components or material for the reactor at Arak.
For its part, Iran considers the sanctions illegal and never agreed to any prohibition regarding procurement. Under the terms of the November 2013 interim accord, which remain in effect, Iran only promised not to incorporate new components into the reactor, commission it, or test or produce additional reactor fuel. Iran never promised not to build new components off-site, or to stop buying parts from abroad. As the restrictions and prohibitions of the interim accord are far less constraining than those in a series of U.N. resolutions, it is not surprising that Iran chose to cite the former in defending its procurement efforts. Responding to the allegations on December 9, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said that “even if any parts were purchased, that would not be inconsistent with the Geneva agreement.”
The Wisconsin Project has identified over a dozen companies and individuals involved in building or supplying the Arak complex, which also houses a heavy water production plant that is operational. That list of entities is available here: Arak Heavy Water Complex.
Citing a confidential report by the U.N. sanctions panel, Foreign Policy also described “a relative decrease in centrifuge enrichment related-procurement” by Iran. Still, as recently as 2011, a Chinese national named Sihai Cheng worked with Iranian intermediaries to send American-made pressure transducers to Eyvaz Technic, which has been sanctioned by both the United States and the European Union for its involvement in Iran's nuclear program. Pressure transducers have a variety of commercial applications but are also used to regulate gas pressure in centrifuges during uranium enrichment. Mr. Cheng was arrested in the United Kingdom last February and was extradited to the United States earlier this month to face charges of “conspiring to export, and exporting, highly sensitive U.S. manufactured goods with nuclear applications to Iran.”