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Editorial: Sanction the Suppliers

Iran can now complete the entire nuclear fuel cycle without outside help. Or at least that’s what the head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization claims. The likely truth is that Iran has not yet reached that capability. Despite Iran’s bravado, the Islamic Republic remains dependent on outside materials to keep its nuclear program operating. Still, that is no reason to stop worrying about the Islamist theocracy’s nuclear ambitions. Someday—and someday soon—Iran could be self-sufficient.

This is no secret. Tehran’s global procurement efforts have been the focus of international concern for decades. It was Pakistan’s nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan who originally helped Iran establish its program and provided the designs for its centrifuge program.

More recently, Iran has been seeking key materials from China and North Korea. Most of the Chinese companies only provided missile components, which is worrisome enough. But some Chinese firms were also discovered selling high-quality carbon fiber to Iran to help it build better centrifuges.

Chinese companies have also helped Iran obtain pressure gauges, a key component used to link centrifuges. And according to a New York Times report on State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, North Korea may have supplied Iran with advanced missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking most of Western Europe and Russia.

A recent U.N. report on North Korean sanctions reached similar conclusions. The report described Pyongyang’s extensive nuclear proliferation to Syria and Iran, noting that Tehran allegedly received “nuclear-related and ballistic missile-related equipment, know-how and technology” from the North Koreans.

For many years, the United States has been trying to stop dangerous shipments to Iran and punish those responsible for exporting the materials. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama each signed executive orders that target the assets of any entity involved in WMD or missile proliferation. And Congress has targeted Iran with sanctions legislation for more than a decade. The most recent of these laws, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, imposed new penalties on countries that serve as transshipment points for illicit materials heading to Iran.

Much more needs to be done to enforce these laws. Despite some successes in U.S. enforcement efforts, Iran continues to acquire sensitive technologies abroad—and even here in the United States. The Commerce Department recently uncovered a scheme to export radar, GPS and communications technology from the United States to Iran.

Under the scheme, a Malaysian company ordered items from U.S. manufacturers and had them shipped to an office in downtown Chicago. The Chicago office, little more than a phone number and a receptionist, relabeled the items and shipped them to Malaysia. In Malaysia, the items were relabeled once more and finally sent to Iran. While this plot was uncovered by the U.S. government, it is hard to say with confidence that other similar schemes don’t exist in the United States and in other unsuspecting countries.

In the meantime, Iran is continuing to advance its nuclear program. Iranian scientists appear to have overcome some technical challenges in their efforts to enrich uranium, including complications possibly caused by the so-called Stuxnet computer virus. In November, Iran was operating 1,000 more centrifuges then it had been in August, an increase of almost 28 percent.

But remember, Iran’s weakness—which we should be trying to exploit—is that it still needs to import parts for its centrifuges. Machines break and the repairs often require parts unavailable inside Iran. As Iran looks to expand its enrichment activity, it will require even more outside aid even.

The good news is that the United States is working with its allies to stop Iran’s procurement activity. The documents exposed by WikiLeaks and published by the media verify this fact. The companies involved in this activity need to be sanctioned in order to dissuade others from assisting Iran. Sanctions will also warn legitimate companies not to do business with bad actors.

U.S. law requires that the State Department issue a report every six months on companies aiding Iran and requires the implementation of sanctions against the entities. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has met the reporting deadlines set by Congress. In fact, the report for fiscal year 2007 was only recently delivered to Congress. The administration needs to compile these reports on time and sanction the companies identified in the reports, including those from China.

In addition, the United States needs to station additional enforcement personnel at key trading hubs around the world. It’s hard to conduct investigations and prevent illicit shipments to Iran if there are not enough people assigned to do that. The United States currently has just one export enforcement agent in China and one in the United Arab Emirates. That won’t do the trick.

Later this month, the Director of National Intelligence is scheduled to issue a report naming countries that allow illicit goods to be transshipped through their territories. Once that report is published, President Obama should adhere to the recently passed Iran sanctions legislation by designating these countries as a “Destination of Diversion Concern” and imposing the sanctions prescribed in the legislation.

By targeting those who enable Iran’s nuclear and missile program, the United States can slow Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon capability. Such a slowdown can allow for more time for international sanctions—which are having real impact on Iran’s economy—to persuade Iran’s leaders that their nuclear weapons quest is not worth the cost. BACK TO TOP