As enforcement efforts have tightened globally, Iran is using China as a platform to smuggle sanctioned goods for its controversial nuclear programme, according to a US think-tank.
A report, titled 'Ring Magnet for IR-1 Centrifuges' by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said that China needs to do more to show that it is a responsible member of the global economy.
The six-page report alleged that Iran uses private Chinese front companies which provide suppliers with false end-user statements.
In the case of high-tech goods, Iran seeks in China goods made in industrialized countries which these suppliers sell in the Chinese market. After acquiring the goods, smuggling networks arrange their shipment to Iran.
In this type of smuggling operation, China is considered a transit or turntable country between the supplier and Iran.
Iran has sought vacuum pumps, high strength, lightweight materials such as maraging steel and carbon fiber, vacuum measuring equipment, leak detectors, and many others, all made by European, Japanese and US suppliers, it said.
The ISIS in its report said it obtained an enquiry posted on a Chinese commercial web site in late 2011 that shows an effort by an Iranian company to buy 100,000 ring magnets.
Technical analysis by ISIS and a European government showed that these ring magnets match those used in Iran's first generation IR-1 gas centrifuge.
"The ring magnets are magnetized, making them ready for use in IR-1 centrifuges. Since these ring magnets can be used in Iran's centrifuge programme, their export to Iran is banned under UN Security Council resolutions that forbid the supply of goods usable in Iran's enrichment programmes," it said.
Such a large order implies that Iran remains committed to building tens of thousands of this model of centrifuge, despite its parallel push to build advanced centrifuges such as the IR-2m, it added.
Notably the IR-1 centrifuge is a copy of the P-1 centrifuge deployed in Pakistan that in turn was a 1970s Dutch design stolen by AQ Khan while he lived in the Netherlands at that time. The Iranian advanced centrifuge is derived from the P-2 centrifuge, which Khan also stole in the 1970s.
The ISIS enquiry also bring into picture for the first time the name of a relatively smaller Indian company.
"The enquiry mentions Ferrito Plastronics, a relatively small Indian company that appears to be offering its services in China. This company is unlikely to have been capable of manufacturing such a large quantity of magnets. It is unclear from the enquiry if Ferrito Plastronics was responding to the enquiry or if Tamouresi was contacting this company," it said.
The report said for sensitive items, and confronted by greater counter-proliferation efforts, the Iranian centrifuge programme may have contracted with more than one domestic trading company to buy the items abroad in order to increase the chance of successfully obtaining them.
"A likely scenario is that several suppliers in different countries were contacted, via such internet shopping malls, and more promisingly, directly. Smaller companies like Ferrito Plastronics would likely have needed to procure the magnets from larger manufacturers," it said.
The report said China should crack down on the efforts of Iranian smuggling networks, as shown by the fact that this company appeared to feel comfortable in openly seeking illicit goods from Chinese companies through such websites.
"In addition, both the Indian and Chinese governments should warn companies that there is zero tolerance for any of their domestic companies entering into such transactions," it said.