Iran recently sought to garner tens of thousands of specialized magnets that are commonly used in centrifuge machines, sparking concerns that the country is planning a major expansion of its nuclear program.
Purchase orders, copies of which were obtained by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and shown to The Washington Post, show an attempt, by the Iranians, to buy 100,000 ring-shaped magnets.
The magnets are currently banned from export to Iran under a U.N. resolution. However the order was requested from China about one year ago. It is not clear whether the attempt was successful.
The order is considered unusual due to its sheer size and due to the nature of the items. Iran has allegedly ordered enough magnets to, theoretically, outfit 50,000 new centrifuges reported the Washington Post on Thursday.
Iran recently announced that it plans to add thousands of more advanced, second generation centrifuges to its current lineup. This will allow the country to ramp up production of enriched uranium even further state experts.
The purchase orders have sparked concern abroad.
“They are positioning themselves to make a lot of nuclear progress quickly,” said a European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Each step forward makes the situation potentially more dangerous.”
Engineers in Iran installed more than 1,000 new IR-1 centrifuge machines at the country’s largest uranium plant, close to the city of Natanz. This adds to the 9,000 IR-1 machines currently in operation, said officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Furthermore, 2,800 IR-1s have been installed near the city of Qom at a small enrichment plant built beneath a mountain.
U.S. intelligence officials have not commented on the magnet case.
According to an ISIS investigation the company that placed the order had previously been linked to Iran’s attempts to acquire controversial technology.
The recent move would shorten Iran’s timeline to obtaining nuclear weapons capability.
“Adding new machines just means you get there a lot faster,” a Western diplomat privy to internal IAEA reports said.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is being conducted for peaceful purposes, medical research and energy production are their stated aims.
A U.N. watchdog report, outlining Iran’s nuclear attempts, will be released this week.