The Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program That Wasn’t

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Inter Press Service

The Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program That Wasn’t

(Photo: Steve Rhodes/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

When U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz unsealed the indictment of a Chinese citizen in the UK for violating the embargo against Iran, she made what appeared to be a new U.S. accusation of an Iran nuclear weapons programme.

The press release on the indictment announced that between in November 2005 and 2012, Sihai Cheng had supplied parts that have nuclear applications, including U.S.-made goods, to an Iranian company, Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing, which it described as “involved in the development and procurement of parts for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

The text of the indictment ...was yet another iteration of a rhetorical device used often in the past to portray Iran’s gas centrifuge enrichment programme as equivalent to the development of nuclear weapons.

Reuters, Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and The Independent all reported that claim as fact. But the U.S. intelligence community, since its well-known November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, has continued to be very clear on the pubic record about its conclusion that Iran has not had a nuclear weapons programme since 2003.

Something was clearly amiss with the Justice Department’s claim.

The text of the indictment reveals that the reference to a “nuclear weapons program” was yet another iteration of a rhetorical device used often in the past to portray Iran’s gas centrifuge enrichment programme as equivalent to the development of nuclear weapons.

The indictment doesn’t actually refer to an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, as the Ortiz press release suggested. But it does say that the Iranian company in question, Eyvaz Tehnic Manufacturing, “has supplied parts for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.”

The indictment claims that Eyvaz provided “vacuum equipment” to Iran’s two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow and “pressure transducers” to Kalaye Electric Company, which has worked on centrifuge research and development.

But even those claims are not supported by anything except a reference to a Dec. 2, 2011 decision by the Council of the European Union that did not offer any information supporting that claim.

The credibility of the EU claim was weakened, moreover, by the fact that the document describes Eyvaz as a “producer of vacuum equipment.” The company’s website shows that it produces equipment for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, including level controls and switches, control valves and steam traps.

Further revealing its political nature of indictment’s nuclear weapons claim, it cites two documents “designating” entities for their ties to the nuclear programme: the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 and a U.S. Treasury Department decision two months later.

Neither of those documents suggested any connection between Eyvaz and nuclear weapons. The UNSC Resolution, passed Dec. 23, 2006, referred to Iran’s enrichment as “proliferation sensitive nuclear activities” in 11 different places in the brief text and listed Eyvaz as one of the Iranian entities to be sanctioned for its involvement in those activities.

And in February 2007 the Treasury Department designated Kalaye Electric Company as a “proliferator of Weapons of Mass Destruction” merely because of its “research and development efforts in support of Iran’s nuclear centrifuge program.”

The designation by Treasury was carried out under an Executive Order 13382, issued by President George W. Bush, which is called “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass destruction Proliferators and Their Supporters.” That title conveyed the impression to the casual observer that the people on the list had been caught in actual WMD proliferation activities.

But the order required allowed the U.S. government to sanction any foreign person merely because that person was determined to have engaged in activities that it argued “pose a risk of materially contributing” to “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery”.

The Obama administration’s brazen suggestion that it was indicting an individual for exporting U.S. products to a company that has been involved in Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” is simply a new version of the same linguistic trick used by the Bush administration.

The linguistic acrobatics began with the political position that Iran’s centrifuge programme posed a “risk” of WMD proliferation; that “risk” of proliferation was then conflated with nuclear proliferation activities, when than was transmuted into “development of nuclear weapons”.

The final linguistic shift was to convert “development of nuclear weapons” into a “nuclear weapons program”.

That kind of the deceptive rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear programme began with the Bill Clinton administration, which argued, in effect, that nuclear weapons development could be inferred from Iran’s enrichment programme.

Although Cheng and Jamili clearly violated U.S. statutes in purchasing and importing the pressure transducers from the United States and sending them to Eyvaz in Iran, a close reading of the indictment indicates that the evidence that Eyvaz provided the transducers to the Iranian nuclear programme is weak at best.

The indictment says Cheng began doing business with Jamili and his company Nicaro in November 2005, and that he sold thousands of Chinese parts “with nuclear applications” which had been requested by Eyvaz. But all the parts listed in the indictment are dual use items that Eyvaz could have ordered for production equipment for oil and gas industry customers.

The indictment insinuates that Eyvaz was ordering the parts to pass them on to Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz, but provides no real evidence of that intent. It quotes Jamili as informing Cheng in 2007 that his unnamed customer needed the parts for “a very big project and a secret one”. In 2008, he told Cheng that the customer was “making a very dangerous system and gas leakage acts as a bomb!”

The authors do not connect either of those statements to Eyvaz, but they suggest that it was a reference to gas centrifuges and thus imply that it must have been Eyvaz. “During the enrichment of uranium using gas centrifuges,” the indictment explains, “extremely corrosive chemicals are produced that could cause fire and explosions.”

That statement is highly misleading, however. There is no real risk of gas leaks from centrifuges causing fires or explosions, as MIT nuclear expert Scott R. Kemp told IPS in an interview. “The only risk of a gas leak [in centrifuge enrichment] is to the centrifuge itself,” said Kemp, “because the gas could leak into the centrifuge and cause it to crash.”

On the other hand, substantial risk of explosion and fire from gas leaks exists in the natural gas industry. So even if the customer referred to in the quotes had been Eyvaz, they would have been consistent with that company’s sales to gas industry customers.

Pressure transducers are used to control risk in that industry, as Todd McPadden of Ashcroft Instruments in Stratford, Connecticut told IPS. The pressure transducer measures the gas pressure and responds to any indication of either loss of pressure from leaks or build up of excessive pressure, McPadden explained.

The indictment shows in detail that in 2009 Eyvaz ordered hundreds of pressure transducers, which came from the U.S. company MKS. But again the indictment cites no real evidence that Eyvaz was ordering them to supply Iran’s enrichment facilities.

It refers only to photographs showing that MKS parts ended up in the centrifuge cascades at Natanz, which does not constitute evidence that they came from Eyvaz.

Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on U.S. national security policy who has been independent since a brief period of university teaching in the 1980s. Dr. Porter is the author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005). He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran since 2005.

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