The purchase order for the magnets — copies of which were obtained by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and shown to The Washington Post — suggests that a vastly larger expansion could be just over the horizon.
The specific dimensions spelled out in the order form match precisely — to a fraction of a millimeter — those of the powerful magnets used in the IR-1, a machine that spins at supersonic speeds to purify uranium gas into an enriched form that can be used in nuclear power plants. With further processing, the same machines can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
With two magnets needed per machine, the order technically could supply Iran with enough material for 50,000 new gas centrifuges, although some of the magnets would probably have been reserved for repairs and spare parts, said David Albright, ISIS president and a former IAEA inspector.
“It implies that they want to build a lot more centrifuges,” he said.
The magnets are made of an unusual alloy known as barium strontium ferrite and were ordered from a Chinese vendor in late 2011. The order was placed by an Iranian businessman, who said the magnets were needed for a “great factory” engaged in a “new project” inside Iran, according to the online order.
U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment on the specifics of the magnets case. One official who closely tracks Iranian procurement efforts said Iran still actively seeks banned technology from a variety of foreign vendors, often using front companies and cover stories to conceal the intended use of the materials it buys.
According to the ISIS investigation, the company that placed the order had been previously linked to Iranian efforts to acquire sensitive technology. The Canadian government placed the firm under sanctions late last year because of unspecified proliferation concerns.
Independent nuclear experts who reviewed the magnets case generally backed the ISIS conclusions. Olli Heinonen, who led IAEA nuclear inspections inside Iran before his retirement in 2010, said the type of magnet sought by Iran was highly specific to the IR-1 centrifuge and could not, for example, be used in the advanced IR-2M centrifuges that Iran has recently tested.
“The numbers in the order make sense, because Iran originally told us it wanted to build more than 50,000 of the IR-1s,” Heinonen said. “The failure rate on these machines is 10 percent a year, so you need a surplus.”
Heinonen said IAEA officials also have documented Iranian efforts to obtain critical parts for the IR-2M machines, which represent a significant technical advance from the clunky, unreliable IR-1.
Nonetheless, Iran has avoided what many experts consider Israel’s new “red line”: a stockpile of medium-enriched uranium greater than 530 pounds, roughly the amount needed to build a weapon if further purified. At the current pace, Iran could reach that theoretical threshold by the middle of next year, said a Western diplomat privy to internal IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear progress.
“Adding new machines just means you get there a lot faster,” the diplomat said.