Will Beijing vote for a fourth round of United Nations sanctions on Iran? The United States is focused on the answer to this question, as are other members of the Security Council. There is, however, a more important inquiry: Will China stop providing technical assistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?
On April 3, The Wall Street Journal reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, was investigating whether a Chinese enterprise—Zhejiang Ouhai Trade Corp., a subsidiary of Jinzhou Group—arranged the surreptitious transfer of “critical valves and vacuum gauges” to Iran for use in its uranium enrichment program. This report follows one last month that another Chinese entity was involved in the sale to Iran of 108 pressure transducers. Transducers are instruments that monitor gas centrifuges, devices that enrich uranium.
In fact, Beijing has been deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program for decades. In June 2002 the State Department publicly noted that China had violated pledges it made in October 1997 to the United States to stop aiding specific Iranian nuclear projects.
In November 2003, the Associated Press reported that the IAEA staff had identified China as one of the probable sources of equipment used in Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Chinese specialists were working in that program at least as late as fall 2003 according to Michael Ledeen, writing in The Wall Street Journal.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the dissident group that in 2002 disclosed the secret nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz, charged in September 2005 that the covert Chinese trade in centrifuges continued into that year. In September 2005, Reuters reported that NCRI charged that China secretly sent Iran beryllium the previous year. This metal is used in neutron initiators to trigger nuclear weapons. Due to the surreptitious nature of the transfer or transfers, it is highly unlikely that Iran intended to use the material for peaceful purposes. The allegation is consistent with other reports about Iran’s covert attempts to source beryllium at that time. Beryllium is subject to international export controls.
In July 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department had lodged formal protests with Beijing about Chinese companies, in violation of Security Council resolutions on Iran, exporting to that country items that could help Tehran build nuclear weapons.
Beijing also proliferated technology to Iran through the nuclear black market ring headed by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb. China, sometime around 1974, started helping Pakistan build a nuclear device. As proliferation analysts note, China’s help was crucial, substantial, and continuous.
Then, the infamous Dr. Khan merchandised China’s bomb technology, including China’s blueprints for at least one warhead, to various countries across Asia and North Africa. This ring, which continued operating into this decade, sold technology to states friendly to China—and, it appears, to no state without strong ties to Beijing. Iran was almost certainly one of Khan’s customers, especially for centrifuge parts.
It is virtually inconceivable that Chinese officials would not have known that one of China’s closest allies was marketing China’s most sensitive technologies to China’s Iranian friends. This is especially true because on occasion Khan used Chinese military installations to facilitate dealings to transfer nuclear technology that eventually ended up in Iran’s hands.
Moreover, Chinese involvement in Khan’s activities was revealed when Islamabad, pressed by Washington, ended the black market ring in the early part of this decade. Beijing leaned on Pakistan’s leaders to make sure Khan’s links to China were not exposed. The effort was successful: a hurried inquiry, followed by Khan’s confession and immediate pardon in 2004, is in fact what happened. Beijing, needless to say, supported Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf’s controversial decision to end the inquiry prematurely.
So let’s make sure the Chinese side against Iran in the upcoming Security Council deliberations. But before the vote, we need to stop the People’s Republic transferring critical technical information and materials to the “atomic ayatollahs.”