A Taiwanese company agreed to a request from a firm in China to procure sensitive components with nuclear uses, then shipped them to Iran, the firm's head said Friday. Such transactions violate UN sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic.
The admission by Steven Lin of Hsinchu-based Heli-Ocean Technology Co. Ltd. comes amid an international effort led by the United States to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
While Lin said he didn't know whether the parts - vital components in the production of weapons-grade uranium - were eventually used by Iran militarily, he did acknowledge that they have nuclear applications.
UN sanctions to prevent Iran from expanding its uranium enrichment program have led it to the black market to obtain sophisticated nuclear-related equipment. Aided by these illegal purchases, the program has grown to the stage where thousands of centrifuges are churning out enriched material, which can be used both for fuel or as the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Iran insists that it wants to enrich uranium to generate nuclear power, but its attempts to evade probes by the International Atomic Energy Agency and its refusal to stop enrichment are increasing suspicions it actually seeks weapons capabilities.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Lin said he received an Internet order from a Chinese firm in January or February 2008 to obtain an unspecified number of pressure transducers, which convert pressure into analog electrical signals.
While pressure transducers have many commercial uses, they furnish the precise measurements needed in the production of weapons-grade uranium.
Nuclear proliferation expert David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security told the AP that Iran tried hard to procure the transducers in Europe and Canada, but was thwarted by a concerted international effort.
However, he said, the existence of the Taiwanese-Chinese connection shows that Iran still has the ability to get what it needs by tapping alternative sources.
"This equipment is likely for its gas centrifuge program," he said.
Lin did not identify the Chinese company that placed the transducer order, except to say that it was involved in the manufacture of pipeline for the oil industry.
He said that he obtained the transducers from a Swiss company, which he declined to name.
Lin said that when he contacted the Swiss firm he had no idea where the transducers were heading.
"It was only at the last minute that the Chinese told me to send them to Iran," he said.
Lin arranged for their direct transportation from Taiwan to the Middle East, he said, rather than sending them to the Chinese company first.
Lin said that he didn't know what happened to the transducers after they arrived in Iran, though he acknowledged that they have an important role in the nuclear industry.
"I know that the (civilian) nuclear research units in Taiwan use these things," he said. "The equipment has multiple uses from semiconductors to solar energy to nuclear work."
A Taiwanese government official told the AP on Friday that an official probe of the Taiwanese-Iranian transducer connection confirmed that 108 of the transducers had been sent from Taiwan to Iran at a Chinese request, but that the equipment was not precise enough to be placed on the island's export control list.
The official, who was in charge of the probe, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Lin apparently felt free to talk because the official investigation, launched last March, did not implicate him in any wrongdoing.
Aside from being prohibited by the UN from pressure transducer purchases, Iran is also banned from purchasing them on the open market by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international body established to limit nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials that can be used in building atomic weapons.
Asked about the circuitous route of the transducer transaction - from China to Taiwan to Switzerland, then back to Taiwan and finally to Iran - the Taiwanese official said that such deals were common in international trade.
"It is fairly common to do business through third parties," he said. He did not elaborate.
The US and its allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons secretly under the guise of a civilian atomic energy program, but Teheran insists its efforts are aimed only at generating electricity.
Washington has been pressing both China and Russia to agree to step up sanctions to pressure Iran into stopping its alleged nuclear program, but so far without result.
Over the past several years, China has been accused of directly aiding the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programs on a number of occasions. Washington has enacted sanctions against several Chinese companies. China has denied involvement in Iran's nuclear programs.
At the same time, Beijing has courted close relations with Iran, with Chinese state companies purchasing Iranian oil and investing in Iran's energy industry.