02/20/2013 - 16:12

Iran centrifuge magnet story technically questionable

Yousaf Butt

Yousaf Butt

Butt is a research professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation...

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Last week, the Washington Post reported that "purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 … ring-shaped magnets" and that such "highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines … [are] a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program." As evidence, the Post's Joby Warrick cited a report authored by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS); dated Feb. 13, the report says that an Iranian firm, Jahan Tech Rooyan Pars Co., made an inquiry "posted on a Chinese commercial website … to buy 100,000 ring magnets." As Warrick goes on to explain: "it is unclear whether the attempt succeeded."

There are serious deficiencies in both the Washington Post story and the assertions in the ISIS report. Given that issues of war and peace may hang on the veracity of such claims, the assertions warrant careful scrutiny.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, "highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines." Such ceramic ring magnets are everyday items and have been used in loudspeakers, for example, for more than half a century. The ISIS report neglects to explain the many other applications for such ceramic ring magnets and jumps to the conclusion that the inquiry is surely related to Iran's nuclear program. Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. Such magnets are used in a variety of electronic equipment. For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

This is not the first time ring magnets have surfaced in allegations related to centrifuge applications. Almost exactly a decade ago, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, then-director of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei said that reports regarding similar ring magnets in Iraq were unrelated to centrifuges:

With respect to reports about Iraq's efforts to import high-strength permanent magnets -- or to achieve the capability for producing such magnets -- for use in a centrifuge enrichment programme, I should note that, since 1998, Iraq has purchased high-strength magnets for various uses. Iraq has declared inventories of magnets of twelve different designs. The IAEA has verified that previously acquired magnets have been used for missile guidance systems, industrial machinery, electricity meters, and field telephones. Through visits to research and production sites, reviews of engineering drawings and analyses of sample magnets, IAEA experts familiar with the use of such magnets in centrifuge enrichment have verified that none of the magnets that Iraq has declared could be used directly for a centrifuge magnetic bearing.

Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former IAEA chief inspector and deputy leader of the agency's Iraq Action Team, told me last week that, between 2002 and 2003, his group "tracked similar ring magnets that Iraq was trying to procure (openly in insecure channels) and found they were for field telephones …. We got started with an ‘intelligence tip' and ran it to ground. Nothing whatsoever to do with centrifuges."

The Iraq Survey Group also weighed in on this issue, saying it "has not uncovered information indicating that the magnet production capability being pursued by Iraq beginning in 2000 was intended to support a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program. … The declared use of the magnet production lines were for production of ring magnets in the Saham Saddam Missile and for field telephones."

A pair of ring magnets is used in the top suspension bearing of the IR-1 gas centrifuges. 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. Albright's suggestion in the ISIS report that "some minor re-design would be necessary of the top end cap and top magnetic bearing of the IR-1 [centrifuge] design but these are seen as fairly trivial"  could be correct. But why would a purchaser wish to redesign, re-machine, and re-test tens of thousands of centrifuges, instead of ordering the correctly sized part in the first place?

Although ISIS redacted measurements in the English translation of the inquiry to purchase the 100,000 magnets, it did not redact them from the original shown on the last page of the ISIS report. The original clearly states that the magnets have "BHmax Min 3MGo"; MGo is shorthand for mega-Gauss Oersted, a measure of the magnetic energy stored in the magnets. (B and H are, respectively, the magnetic flux density and the magnetic field strength.) This value is substantially less than the 10 MGo trigger level given for centrifuge applications in Annex 3 of the Notifications of Exports to Iraq mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1051 (1996). Although magnets with an energy product of 3 MGO could be consistent with applications in suspension bearings of the older IR-1 centrifuges, they are also consistent with a host of other applications.

Curiously, the inquiry to the China-based company that is shown on the last page of the ISIS report is very casual and overt. 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.

Not only would such an overt attempt at sourcing the ring magnets be inconsistent with the secrecy surrounding Iran's nuclear program; it would also be 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. Also, before indicating that such a huge order may be in the works, a serious engineering operation would likely obtain a few sample magnets to formally qualify them. Such an order would, more reasonably, be directed to the manufacturer or direct supplier (in this case, apparently, a rather small Indian firm, Ferrito Plastronics), rather than to a Chinese middleman. Obtaining 100,000 ceramic ring magnets without sample qualification would be highly risky and unprofessional. It would be inconsistent with Iran's generally excellent record in systems management and engineering involving a range of technologies and industries.

Both the Washington Post story and the ISIS report on which it is based repeatedly call the inquiry a "purchase order" or "order." This is a mischaracterization. The evidence presented (Figures 3 and 4 in the ISIS report) merely shows a web inquiry as to whether the supplier has any interest in discussing the question further. There is no mention of money, delivery dates, or letters of credit. All of these items would be part of a formal purchase order.

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." The proprietor states that his monthly turnover is slightly less than $2,000. Such a firm would seem unlikely to be the optimal source for 100,000 high-quality centrifuge ring magnets.

Although the purpose of the alleged inquiry is subject to interpretation, it seems unlikely to be related to Iran's nuclear program. Assuming that the request to buy 100,000 magnets is genuine, it would be consistent with, for instance, an Iranian loudspeaker company interested in obtaining such ceramic ring magnets.  That is just one possible hypothesis, of course, but it seems a better explanation of the alleged inquiry than the suggestion of an overt attempt by Iran's nuclear program to source 100,000 of the wrong-sized ceramic ring magnets from a tiny Indian company via a Chinese middleman.

It is worth noting that the best Western intelligence concludes that no nuclear weapons work is going on in Iran right now, and that Iran is not an imminent nuclear threat. James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, has confirmed that he has "a high level of confidence" that no nuclear weaponization work is underway in Iran. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also weighed in: "Are [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No."  And in an interview for a 2011 article in the New Yorker, ElBaradei said that he did not see "a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb after 2003, adding, "I don't believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran."

Given these expert assessments, reporters and editors should raise the bar for the evidence underpinning stories of alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work. 
This Washington Post article is the second in about three months to make serious unsubstantiated claims regarding Iran's nuclear program. In the previous story, the Associated Press used flimsy evidence to suggest that Iran may be working on a nuclear bomb.

Clearly, the media reporting on Iran's controversial nuclear program have a duty to do a better job of vetting evidence and sources. Similarly, non-governmental organizations that are supposed to supply unbiased expert advice should strive to provide professional analyses that lay out all possible explanations and do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. We have all been witness to what may happen when a fictional threat is spun up over non-existent weapons of mass destruction -- the result isn't pretty. When news reports cast thin evidence in hyperbolic terms, the public is invited to run rampant with speculation about Iran's nuclear program. At a time when military action is apparently being seriously contemplated, the international community needs to look past trivialities, focus on the facts, and find realistic opportunities for ending the Iranian nuclear standoff.

Editor's note: Subsequent to the publication of this article, the State Department imposed sanctions on Jahan Tech Rooyan Pars as one of  several "Iran-based entities engaged in efforts to support the development of nuclear weapons, or elements of Iran’s program that could be used to produce nuclear weapons." The State Department press release announcing the sanctions can be found here.