Iran tried to buy 100,000 specialized magnets for centrifuges
According to a report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) on Wednesday, Iran attempted to purchase 100,000 specialized magnets for use in centrifuges, in what appears to be an attempt at a major upgrade in their uranium enrichment capacity.
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.
Although Iran has frequently sought to buy banned items from foreign vendors, this case is considered unusual because of the order’s specificity and sheer size — enough magnets in theory to outfit 50,000 new centrifuges, or nearly five times the number that Iran currently operates.
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.
“They are positioning themselves to make a lot of nuclear progress quickly,” said a European diplomat with access to sensitive intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Each step forward makes the situation potentially more dangerous.”
A shrinking of Iran’s timeline for obtaining a weapons capability could increase pressure on Israel, which in recent months has appeared to ease off from threats of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In a speech Monday to American Jewish leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had not crossed the “red line” that would warrant a military strike, but he said the country’ s recent nuclear advances “shorten the time it will take them to cross that line.”
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.
The purchase order for the magnets — copies of which were obtained by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and shown to The Washington Post — suggests that a vastly larger expansion could be just over the horizon.
The specific dimensions spelled out in the order form match precisely — to a fraction of a millimeter — those of the powerful magnets used in the IR-1, a machine that spins at supersonic speeds to purify uranium gas into an enriched form that can be used in nuclear power plants. With further processing, the same machines can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
With two magnets needed per machine, the order technically could supply Iran with enough material for 50,000 new gas centrifuges, although some of the magnets would probably have been reserved for repairs and spare parts, said David Albright, ISIS president and a former IAEA inspector.
“It implies that they want to build a lot more centrifuges,” he said.
The magnets are made of an unusual alloy known as barium strontium ferrite and were ordered from a Chinese vendor in late 2011. The order was placed by an Iranian businessman, who said the magnets were needed for a “great factory” engaged in a “new project” inside Iran, according to the online order.The sanctions regime imposed on Iran may be destroying its economy but it appears to be having no effect whatsoever on Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The time has come to try something different.