KIEV | Recent developments in Iran confirm that China is providing Tehran with critical defense technologies and weapons systems, including some that violate stated Chinese policies aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation.
The disclosure of Chinese military aid comes as the Obama administration is trying to persuade Beijing to join other members of the U.N. Security Council, European Union member states and major non-aligned states such as Brazil to adopt a new set of tough sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear-arms program.
Proliferation of defense industrial know-how and brain power from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to Iran — specifically advanced anti-ship missiles, nuclear technology and ballistic-missile designs — has been at the top of U.S. government concerns since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
One of the more recent issues is the expected delivery to Iran of state-of-the-art Almaz-Antei S-300 air-defense missiles systems under a contract originally signed in 2005 between Teheran and Russia’s Rosoboronexport (ROE), the state-run arms-export agency.
The U.S., Israel and others have objected to Russian S-300 deliveries on the grounds that the missiles will significantly improve Iran’s surface-to-air missile network and reduce the chances — if deemed necessary at some point — of successful air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran has made little effort to disguise what analysts say is a modern-day “underground railroad” of Russian and Ukrainian scientists who traveled to the Islamic state on what were officially deemed “tourist” visits or to attend scientific conferences with benign themes.
In reality, the scientists are engaged in assisting numerous Iranian weapons-development programs.
A CIA report to Congress made public in 2009 states that assistance from Chinese and Russian entities “has helped Iran move toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles.”
Some of this Russian assistance has produced results for Iran, such as the Shafaq fighter/attack aircraft, which has been traced back to aircraft designs developed many years before at the Mikoyan Design Bureau and other aeronautical research centers of the former Soviet Union.
But, over the longer term, Moscow’s most significant contribution was encouraging Western nations to concentrate inordinately on the proliferation of people, technology, equipment and skills from Russia and Ukraine to Iran.
The diversion has made it easier for China to supply the Iranians with a number of weapons — and the industrial capacity to manufacture them — without drawing much attention.
Last week, Iran’s naval forces announced test firings of two basic models of anti-ship missiles — a short-range design called the Nasr-1 and Nasr-2 (the two different designs use different types of guidance systems), and a longer-range missile called the Nour.
According to reports from both the Iranian IRIB TV news network and the pro-government Borna news agency, the Nasr-1 and -2 missiles are not only in service with the Iranian military, but there is now a production line in Iran that has the country’s Aerospace Industries Organization turning these weapons out in large numbers.
The Nour, which has a range greater than 60 miles, is also produced in Iran and analysts said there is a new version of the missile in development with triple the current range.
According to missile specialists, both weapons were originally developed and built in China, and have been advertised as being in service with the Chinese armed forces.
The Nour is known in China as the C-802 anti-ship cruise missile, and the Nasr is a design that was developed specifically for Iran by China’s Hongdu Aviation Group at the beginning of this decade. It has undergone several name changes and configuration alterations, resulting in two competing designs: the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC) weapon designated C-704 and the Hongdu TL-2.
China’s history of cooperation with Iran in defense industrial technology dates back almost to the first days of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Chinese arms specialists remain among the world’s best experts at reverse-engineering foreign weapons, and have produced large numbers of copies of Russian-design weapon systems for decades.
Chinese engineers used that experience to teach Iranian industry how to fabricate parts for Iran’s U.S.-made systems inherited during the time of the shah, when Tehran could no longer purchase spares due to the U.S. embargo that remains in place today.
The result is an Iran that can today produce aircraft, missiles, defense electronic systems and various other weapon systems on its own.
The same week as the missile launches, Iran’s air force announced it has formed the first squadron of Iranian-manufactured Saeqeh, or Thunderbolt, fighter aircraft.
The aircraft is a modified version of the old Northrop F-5 fighter that first saw service in the Vietnam War, but it has some subtle differences, including a new twin vertical tail. It is another conventional-weapons capability that Iran built with Chinese development assistance.
These and other Iranian-Chinese programs may end up having a cumulative effect on the security balance in the region that outweighs the Russian S-300 deal.
But, by far the most alarming transfer of defense technology was an illegal sale made last year to Iran of 108 pressure transducers. Nuclear specialists said these items, which are also known as capacitance diaphragm gauges, would only have been purchased in such large numbers in order to be used to monitor the processing of the gas centrifuges Iran is operating to produce enriched, weapons-grade uranium.
These pressure transducers are in theory prohibited for sale to Iran, but a lengthy investigative report by the Associated Press bureau in Taipei has proved that by using backdated paperwork and false end-user certificates, Chinese agents were able to set up an elaborate daisy chain to conceal the true destination of these components.
The Swiss manufacturers of these components were told that the transducers, which were ordered by its Taiwan-based sales agent, were intended for shipment to Shanghai.
Export licensing paperwork was altered to change the destination to Tehran, where they were received by an Iranian company.
According to the AP, the transaction for the transducer gauges, at first, seemed aboveboard. 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.
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 was named as Moshever Sanat Moaser, an Iranian company described on its Web site as a provider of specialty alloys and industrial parts.
David Albright from the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, and the author of the upcoming book “Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies,” commented that the Chinese essentially rode to the rescue of Tehran’s nuclear program by providing a purchasing channel where all other efforts at acquiring these items had failed.
“The [Iranian] government looked everywhere — Russia, Europe, the U.S. and they were being thwarted by the international community,” Mr. Albright said.
European intelligence services have reported that nine out of ten attempts to acquire these transducers had been blocked until now.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that it was unaware of this sale and that all illegal exports of nuclear-related items are forbidden.
But, observers familiar with the trade patterns between the two nations point out that Beijing is not in a position to deny too much of what the Iranians would like to have whether it is legal or not.
Energy-hungry China purchases some 15 percent of its oil and natural gas from Iran and this dependency is only likely to increase over time — as are the demands from Iran for more advanced military technology.