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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Iran seeking to buy dual use carbon fiber

According to diplomats quoted by the Jerusalem Post, Iran's only automobile manufacturer is seeking to buy large quantities of carbon fiber, which can be used in the process of uranium enrichment.
Carbon fiber is one of the products that may not be sold to Iran under the current UN sanctions regimen. Iran - as usual - is denying the charges. The two diplomats from International Atomic Energy Agency member nations said their intelligence agencies had reported suspicions that Iran wanted carbon fiber at least partly for its nuclear program. They spoke on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.

One of the diplomats told the AP that since early 2009, Iran Khodro has been taking steps for "a massive-scale procurement of carbon fiber."

Iran Khodro head Manouchehr Manteqi, acting on orders of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, has "instructed a limited number of senior company executives to make the procurement as soon as possible," the diplomat said.

The second diplomat told the AP that his country's intelligence services also believed Iran Khodro officials were preparing to make orders for carbon fiber.

Manteqi vehemently denied that.

"Reports that we are after carbon fiber are wrong," he told reporters in Teheran Wednesday, responding to a question from the AP.

Iran's Supreme National Security Council oversees the country's nuclear program. It would be unusual for it to be involved in routine industrial production like car manufacture.


Alf Mischlich, an expert on hybrids with the German automaker Adam Opel GmbH, said cars powered by natural gas have tanks made either of reinforced steel or lighter, more rugged carbon fiber "but the tendency for new models is carbon-fiber." Toyota's prototype Camry Hybrid, for instance, has twin compressed natural-gas tanks with a carbon fiber-wrapped exterior shell.

Iran has also used carbon fiber in the rotors of new, advanced centrifuges known as the IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4, which spin uranium gas to produce enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium can be used as nuclear fuel. Much more enriched, it can be used in a warhead.

The IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4 run two to three times faster than Iran's 1970s-vintage P-1 centrifuge, which uses aluminum rotors. The new models are also more robust than the P-1, which is prone to frequent breakdowns, say experts and IAEA officials.

Iran has not said where it got the carbon fiber used in the IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4. It has displayed only a few finished models, a possible indication that it lacks carbon fiber and other materials under UN embargo.


Zsolt Rumy, the head of Zoltek, a carbon fiber manufacturer headquartered in Bridgeton, Missouri, said that in the case of natural gas tanks and centrifuge rotors, the specifications can overlap.

"There is no reason why the same kind of carbon fiber cannot be used for both," he said.
To see this story in full perspective, one must consider the meaning of the recent disclosure that Iran already has more enriched uranium than previously believed.
Using the IAEA's own figures and standards, the 209 kilograms of additional low-enriched uranium hexafluoride would be a small fraction of a weapon's worth of material, and it would need to be enriched further; yet, it would still pose a serious concern. Moreover, according to IAEA figures, the Iranian operating records had somehow undercounted total production by about a third - hardly a small error from the standpoint of operators who have spent millions on a facility so fraught with national pride that Iranian President Ahmadinejad toured the facility to great fanfare in April 2008.

Context is also important. Iran's track record with respect to full and accurate disclosure of its nuclear activities has been less than pristine. The Natanz facility was disclosed to the world not by a declaration to the IAEA, but by a militant group's press conference in August 2002 and subsequent analysis by others. IAEA inspectors then discovered that Iran had carried out undeclared nuclear activities for many years, leading eventually in 2005 to a finding by the IAEA's Board of Governors that "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement . . . constitute non compliance . . ." The board also noted ". . .the history of concealment of Iran's nuclear activities . . ." The latest IAEA report laments ". . . the continued lack of cooperation by Iran. . ."

On the other hand, Iran has, if anything, seemed given to overstating its uranium enrichment accomplishments once the Natanz facility became public. Tehran seemed intent on presenting the world with a nuclear fait accompli. Indeed, it boasted publicly of its scientific prowess; Ahmadinejad announced Iran's initial enrichment success saying, "I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries." Why under such circumstances would Iran understate its accomplishments?

One possibility is that Iran is testing the IAEA, seeking vulnerabilities in international inspectors' abilities to account for nuclear material. By probing IAEA capabilities to detect discrepancies in material balances - while using methods that can be explained as benign - Iran may be preparing for future noncompliance. In any event, Iran has learned from this case that it can mislead the IAEA about the amount of material it has produced for a matter of months, but not indefinitely. Such knowledge could be useful for a rapid breakout from Treaty obligations.


At 3:03 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There are legitimate industrial applications for carbon fiber. Dual use carbon fiber as the name says, isn't one of them.


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