Early last year, a Chinese company placed an order with a Taiwanese agent for 108 nuclear-related pressure gauges. But something happened along the way. Paperwork was backdated. Plans were rerouted, orders reconfigured, shipping redirected.
And the gauges ended up in a very different place: Iran.
The story behind the gauges shows how Iran is finding its way around international sanctions meant to prevent it from getting equipment that can be used to make a nuclear bomb. At least half a dozen times in recent years, the Persian Gulf nation has tried to use third countries as transshipment points for obtaining controlled, nuclear-related equipment.
In the case of the pressure gauges, it succeeded. In the process, the Swiss manufacturer and the Swiss government were duped, a Chinese company went around its own government's prohibition on moving nuclear-related equipment to Iran, and Taiwanese authorities showed themselves unwilling or unable to get into step with the international community.
The deal was a huge victory for Tehran, which had been seeking the gauges for months, said nuclear proliferation expert David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. It also reflected the uneven enforcement of international sanctions against Iran, at a time when the U.S. and other Western countries are pushing hard to expand them.
"The (Iranian) government looked everywhere — Russia, Europe, the U.S., and they were being thwarted by the international community," Albright said. "It's really unfortunate they succeeded in using this Taiwan-China connection...This case is a wake up call of the importance of universal and timely application of sanctions on Iran."
Iran says it wants to enrich uranium to generate nuclear power, but the West fears that it actually seeks weapons capabilities.
It's impossible to verify how Iran is using the gauges, also known as pressure transducers or capacitance diaphragm gauges, which have numerous commercial applications in machines that employ pneumatic or hydraulic pressure. But experts say the large size of the order suggests very strongly that they are for centrifuges to churn out enriched uranium.
As of last November, Iran had 8,692 centrifuges, of which 3,936 were running, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Each centrifuge normally requires a transducer, though a single gauge can also serve up to 10 linked centrifuges.
"The gauges are extremely useful to them," said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a physicist at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California's Monterey Institute of International Studies. "It's a very big deal."
At first, the transaction seemed above board.
A Jan. 24, 2009, purchase order shows that Roc-Master Manufacture & Supply Company ordered the gauges for delivery to its Shanghai base. The order — in the amount of $112,303.72 — was placed with Heli-Ocean Technology Co. Ltd., the Taiwanese agent for Swiss manufacturer Inficon Holding AG. Inficon, together with MKS of Andover, Mass., produces most of the world's supply of this type of transducer.
On Feb. 6, Heli-Ocean received an initial payment from Roc-Master and placed an order with Inficon for the transducers, documents show.
Then the situation changed.
Roc-Master issued a revised purchase order, backdated to Jan. 24, instructing Heli-Ocean to ship the transducers not to Shanghai, but to the Tehran airport. The consignee is named as Moshever Sanat Moaser, an Iranian company described on its Web site as a provider of specialty alloys and industrial parts.
The second purchase order also increased the amount to $145,800, almost $33,500 more than the original, without explanation.
Apparently the change in destination and the nature of the shipment alarmed Heli-Ocean, because in a Feb. 18 e-mail seen by the AP, Roc-Master assured the Taiwanese company that the 108 transducers were not for Iran's nuclear industry. It also said that Chinese law barred the shipment of the transducers from China to Iran.
None of this was revealed to the Swiss manufacturer and authorities.
Inficon CEO Lukas Winkler told the AP that had his company known the end-user was Moshever Sanat Moaser, it would never have sold the transducers to Heli-Ocean. He said the gauges fall within Swiss sanctions on exports to Iran.
"The end-user certificate we got did not say Iran," he said. "The deal was done via a Chinese company. And we have a certificate with the name of a Chinese end-user on it."
Winkler said that before the goods were sent, Inficon reported the transaction to Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, because the number of transducers raised its suspicions.
"We always have the goods checked when it is a big order," he said. "If someone wants one single device it's not delicate. But if someone wants 100 at once, that's very unusual for this type of product."
In a statement, the Swiss secretariat said the transducers did not require an export license, because "the exporter was not aware that those goods were destined for Iran."
"Otherwise an approval of the Swiss export control authorities would have been necessary," the statement continued. "Switzerland would not grant any license for the export of such transducers to Iran."
European governments have been stopping nine out of 10 Iranian attempts to get pressure transducers, according to European intelligence, Albright said. One European country witnessed 40 procurement attempts from Iran for pressure transducers from August 2008 to August 2009.
Taiwan, however, let the shipment go through.
For more than 30 years, the island has been the orphan of the international community, denied membership in organizations like the United Nations because of China's insistence that it has no sovereign status of its own. The result has been a gaping lack of familiarity with push-button issues for the West — Iran among them — and a strong interest in building up the trade links that define its place in the world.
Taiwan, unlike Switzerland and China, does not belong to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an alliance of 46 countries that seek to limit the spread of nuclear-related equipment. However, Taiwan says it enforces export control lists based on NSG protocols.
The transducers arrived in Taiwan on March 9, 2009, three days after they were shipped from Switzerland, according to a Taiwanese freight forwarder's document obtained by the AP. They were reported to Taiwanese Customs on March 10, the document shows.
A Taiwanese official with intimate knowledge of the deal told the AP they were shipped from Taipei airport to Iran sometime in March. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The official said Heli-Ocean broke no laws. He said the transducers sent to Iran were not sensitive enough to be placed on the island's control list and, as such, did not need a special customs declaration.
However, three experts who examined the specifications of the transducers for the AP confirmed that they were on the NSG watchlist. Their movement to Iran should have been stopped, said researcher Stephanie Lieggi of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute's Martin Center.
"Any country adhering to the NSG lists would likely deny this export to Iran," she said in an e-mail to the AP.
Taiwan may not be so quick to allow such transactions in the future. The Taiwanese official said the government has decided to require Heli-Ocean to declare any further sales to the Iranian company before they are carried out.
"Taiwan had contacts with a foreign intelligence agency after the transaction," the official said. "The agency provided us with intelligence that it suspected an Iranian entity could be procuring pressure transducers from a company in a third country and using them for nuclear proliferation purposes."
Taiwanese companies have been caught exporting sensitive items before. In January, a freight forwarder employee was indicted for helping Taipei-based Axiomtek Co. move industrial computers to Iran. In 2008 a court convicted Taipei-based Trans Merits Co. Ltd. of exporting proscribed computing equipment to North Korea.
Albright said Heli-Ocean should never have gone through with the sale to Moshever Sanat Moaser.
"Because of Inficon's status as a major producer of pressure transducers, an Inficon agent like Heli-Ocean should have known about the problematic nature of their export to Iran," he said.
Added Dalnoki-Veress: "This deal is definitely a red flag. If (Heli-Ocean) gets an order for 100 units they have to check if it's legitimate."
Steve Lin, the Heli-Ocean boss, declined to answer specific questions about the deal but insisted he had done nothing wrong.
"I don't support terrorists," he told the AP in January. "I don't want to hurt people."
Officials at Moshever Sanat Moaser in Tehran did not respond to several requests for comment.
As for China, the incident will likely fuel suspicions about its commitment to nonproliferation. The oil-hungry nation is heavily invested in Iran's energy industry and has opposed tougher sanctions on Tehran. A blog on Roc-Master's Web site highlights its role in supplying equipment for a natural gas project on Iran's Kharg Island in March 2008.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said he was unaware of the pressure gauge deal.
However, he wrote in a fax: "I would be glad to reaffirm China stands firm and clear on the issue of preventing nuclear arms proliferation. We have already established comprehensive regulations for export control and an effective system to administer them. All illegal exports are forbidden."
In Shanghai, Roc-Master official Liu Xiaofeng initially said he didn't recall the transaction. But when pressed, he replied, "It's our company's secret information, so I don't think we need to tell the media anything about it."
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