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Latest Smoking Gun on Iran's Nuclear Program Just Another Misfire

Yousaf Butt lays waste to the magnetic-ring-sign-of-Iran-nuclear-expansion theory.

On February 13 Joby Warrick reported for the Washington Post that "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." More:

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.

Or as the ISIS report Institute for Science and International Security that Warrick sited concluded:

This large potential order by Iran in late 2011 for 100,000 ring magnets ready for use in IR-1 centrifuges implies an Iranian intention to greatly expand its number of these centrifuges.

Not so fast. Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies explains.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, "highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines." … Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. … For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

Even more damning to the report…

As others have already noted, it seems to make little sense to order ceramic magnets that are, as ISIS describes, "almost exactly" the right dimensions. If one is intending to purchase 100,000 ceramic ring magnets for critical high-speed centrifuge applications, why not order them exactly the right size? Ceramics are almost impossible to machine due to their brittle nature and are generally ordered to the precise specifications desired.

Also fairly embarrassing…

The alleged inquiry states, "Dear Sir We are a great factory in south of Iran and for our new project we need 100.000 pcs Ferrite Barium strontium ring magnet . … we would like buy from you [sic] company. We should be glad if you supply this magnet for us." Presumably, an attempt to source 100,000 parts related to Iran's controversial and often secretive nuclear program would not be conducted quite so openly. [It's] also at odds with procurement best-practices, for several reasons. First, such a large order would likely drive up the market price and perhaps even signal to the supplier to choke off the supply, in hopes of obtaining a better price later. 

I've saved the worst for last.

The apparent manufacturer or supplier of the magnets in question, Ferrito Plastronics, is evidently a "tiny firm in a dark alley in Chennai's electronic spare parts hub on Meeran Sahib Street." According to the Times of India, "the Chennai firm does supply magnets. But these, avers company proprietor Bala Subramanian, are the ones used in loudspeakers, coils, and medical equipment. Besides these, there are decorative magnets for fridges."

In other words, if you haven't figured it out yet…

Such a firm would seem unlikely to be the optimal source for 100,000 high-quality centrifuge ring magnets.

We'll give Professor Butt the final word.

… reporters and editors should raise the bar for the evidence underpinning stories of alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work.