China remains “a major gap” in enforcing global sanctions on Iran, with lax oversight enabling front companies to purchase sensitive materials that can advance Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, a leading expert on Iran’s nuclear program said.
“China does not implement and enforce its trade controls or its sanctions laws adequately,” David Albright, a nuclear physicist who inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities for the United Nations’ atomic energy agency in the 1990s, said yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington research institute.
“Over and over, Iran goes there to buy things,” including high-strength maraging steel, specialty vacuum pumps, Kevlar and carbon fiber used for machinery that produces enriched uranium, said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
The comments come just ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington next week. U.S.-Chinese cooperation in enforcing sanctions and slowing Iran’s progress in developing a nuclear weapons capability will be an important topic in the leaders’ talks, White House officials said.
President Barack Obama will face a delicate balance in his talks with Hu, as he credits China’s cooperation in supporting the passage of United Nations sanctions against Iran last year, while at the same time pressing Beijing to devote more resources to cracking down on violators of those sanctions.
During a visit to Beijing in September, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, discussed with Chinese officials the U.S. concerns that certain Chinese companies were violating UN sanctions against Iran, perhaps without the knowledge of the Chinese government.
Officials in the U.S. and Europe credit sanctions with hindering Iran’s efforts to acquire carbon fiber and maraging steel, an alloy that can be used to make centrifuges that enrich uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb. Iran may be running out of maraging steel, he said.
“Sanctions are working, but they can be improved," Albright said.
Albright, who said his institute advises companies on suspicious purchase inquiries, cited examples of European companies being duped into selling sensitive materials to Iranian smuggling networks posing as Chinese companies.
While the U.S. and Europe have developed law enforcement and export control networks to detect Iranian front companies attempting to buy dual-use technology or materials, in China there’s ‘‘still a large amount’’ of equipment and materials that reaches Iranian buyers, Albright said.
‘‘To a German supplier in China, it looks like a domestic sale where export controls don’t even come into play,’’ Albright said. ‘‘It turns out that company is a front for an Iranian smuggling network.’’
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. In the past, Chinese officials have said that they investigate all complaints and do not tolerate illegal export activities.
Last year, U.S. diplomats pressed Chinese officials to block a shipment to Iran of carbon fiber, which is needed for rotors in advanced centrifuges. In 2009, Manhattan’s district attorney indicted Chinese businessman Li Fangwei and his company, Limmt Economic & Trade Co., for allegedly trying to sell various metal alloys to an Iranian defense company. Li denied wrongdoing at the time.
A fourth round of UN economic sanctions, approved by the Security Council in June, restricts financial transactions with Iran. The move was followed by separate U.S. measures that blocks access to the American financial system for banks doing business in Iran. European Union governments also tightened punitive measures against Iran by banning investment and sales of equipment to the country’s oil and natural-gas industries.
Iran resumed nuclear talks last month in Geneva with the so-called P5+1 nations -- UN Security Council permanent members China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. plus Germany -- after more than a year. A second round is scheduled for Jan. 21 and Jan. 22 in Istanbul, Iran’s official news agency has reported.
Iran is under international sanctions for refusing to scale back its nuclear work, which the U.S. and allies say is a cover for weapons development.
China this week said it would be unable to accept Iran’s invitation for a top official to visit Iran’s nuclear sites this month, ahead of the planned Istanbul meeting. European diplomats who received the same invitation had already rebuffed it, saying inspections should be done by experts at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna.
Iran denies that its nuclear program is for military purposes, insisting it needs the technology to generate electricity and for other civilian projects such as medical research.
While Iran agreed to talks with the six nations that have consistently pressed Tehran’s leaders to stop the nuclear program, it said it would ‘‘absolutely not” suspend the production of enriched uranium, which can be used to make a bomb.