Special Report: Inside Iran’s secret project to produce aluminium powder for missiles
By Bozorgmore Sharafedin and Pratima Desai
LONDON (Reuters) - On the edge of the desert in North Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, near the country's largest bauxite deposit, is an aluminum production complex that the government has publicly advertised as an important part of its efforts to increase the country's production has metal.
However, there is also a secret facility on the site near the city of Jajarm, which was set up by the Iranian elite security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and which, according to a former Iranian government official, made aluminum powder for use in his missile program Regarding the facility he shared with Reuters. Aluminum powder obtained from bauxite is an important component of solid fuel propellants that are used to fire rockets.
Iran started producing the powder for military use more than five years ago, according to the former official, who was Head of Public Relations and Parliamentary Affairs Envoy in the then Vice President's Office for Executive Affairs from 2013 to 2018, overseeing some economic policy measures. Ex-official Amir Moghadam said he had visited the little-known facility twice and production would continue when he left Iran in 2018.
Iran's previously unreported production of aluminum powder for use in missiles has been developed as part of international sanctions to block the country's efforts to acquire advanced weapon technology. The United States and its allies view Iran's missile capabilities as a threat to the region and the world.
Reuters reviewed more than a dozen documents related to the aluminum powder project and the people involved from 2011 to 2018. One is a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from a Revolutionary Guard commander, whose brother the Iranian state described as Iranian the father of the Iranian missile program.
In the letter, Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam described the Jajarm facility as a "project to produce rocket fuel from metal powder" and said it played an important role in "improving the country's self-sufficiency in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel". The letter is undated, but appears to be from 2017, based on references to events.
When asked by Reuters, Alireza Miryousefi, spokeswoman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York, replied: "We have no information on these allegations and the authenticity of documents."
"We should repeat that Iran never intended to make nuclear warheads or missiles," said Miryousefi. Iran has long said its missile program is only defensive.
The Revolutionary Guards oversee Iran's missile program. The PR office did not answer any questions when contacted by phone for this article. Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam did not respond to requests for comments. (He has nothing to do with Amir Moghadam, the former official who communicated the program to Reuters.) Supreme Leader Khamenei's and President Hassan Rouhani's offices also failed to respond to requests.
Amir Moghadam's revelations about the aluminum powder program could intensify control of Iran's missile efforts in Washington. The former Iranian official, who now lives in France, said he left Iran in 2018 after being accused of causing unrest after posting public comments alleging corruption by some government officials. He said he wanted to expose the program because he believed that Iran's missile ambitions were not in the interests of the Iranian people.
The United States has imposed extensive sanctions, including the fight against the Iranian metal sector and the ballistic missile program. This includes operating restrictions and transactions related to the Iranian aluminum sector. The sanctions also target the Revolutionary Guards and third parties who materially support or conduct certain transactions with the guards. The US Treasury Department has an important role in managing sanctions.
When asked if Reuters' new findings on the production of aluminum powder for military use indicate a sanction violation, a Treasury spokesman said: "The Treasury department takes reports of potentially sanctionable behavior seriously, and despite the fact that we are undertaking potential investigations not comment, we are committed to targeting those who support the Iranian regime and its malicious activities around the world within our agencies. "
The United Nations has restricted Iran's activities related to ballistic missile activities that can deliver nuclear weapons. A spokesman said it was not clear whether the aluminum powder activities disclosed by Reuters would violate these restrictions. Jose Luis Diaz, spokesman for the United States Department of Political and Peacebuilding, said: "The Security Council has not clarified whether Iran's ability to produce aluminum powder for use as rocket fuel is incompatible with the restrictive measures."
Making its own aluminum powder for use in rocket fuels would give Iran greater control over the supply chain and quality, said Michael Elleman, Washington, DC, director of the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a Security Think Tank.
The Iran Alumina Company operates the facility in Jajarm, according to Reuters' verified aluminum powder program documents. IAC is a subsidiary of the Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development and Renovation Organization (IMIDRO). IAC and IMIDRO did not respond to requests for comments.
According to the IAC website, the company operates a bauxite mine and an aluminum production facility in a complex that is located about 10 kilometers northeast of Jajarm. Bauxite is processed into aluminum oxide, from which aluminum metal is produced. Aluminum powder is made from the metal.
Aluminum powder is used in products ranging from paints and electronics to solar panels and fireworks.
Due to its explosive properties, aluminum powder is also an important component of solid fuel propellants that are used to fire rockets and rockets. When mixed with oxygen-containing material, a large amount of energy is released.
In 2010, the UK government added IAC to a list of Iranian units that it believed could be used for goods purchased for military purposes or weapons of mass destruction. The list should alert traders who hope to sell to these companies that they may need to apply for an export license. The list was withdrawn in 2017 after a number of U.S. and European Union sanctions against Iran were lifted.
When asked by Reuters about Iran's production of aluminum powder for military use, the UK government said in a statement: "We have significant and longstanding concerns over Iran's ballistic missile program, which is destabilizing for the region and a threat to regional security represents. " The statement added that Iran's development of nuclear-powered ballistic missiles and related technologies "is not compatible with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which has been in force since 2015," which calls on Iran not to launch any ballistic missile-related activities nuclear missiles carry weapons.
The United Nations has long targeted Iran's missile activity to curb the country's alleged nuclear program. In June 2010, the United States Security Council adopted Resolution 1929. This measure restricted Tehran's production of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons and prohibited other states from providing Iran with the appropriate technology or technical assistance.
In September 2010, the Singaporean authorities intercepted a shipment of 302 barrels of aluminum powder from China that came to Iran. This emerges from a body of the United States that monitors compliance with the resolution. A ballistic missile expert told the panel that the high aluminum content of the powder "is an indication that the most likely end use is a solid propellant for missiles," the panel said in a 2011 report.
By 2011, according to Amir Moghadam and two of the documents he shared with Reuters, the Jajarm facility had been developed.
One document is a letter from October 2011 to Maj. Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, then head of the Revolutionary Guard missile program, from Majid Ghasemi Feizabadi, then managing director of the IAC. Ghasemi wrote that they had found a location for the project near an "abandoned airport" near the city of Jajarm on the order of the major general. Ghasemi also asked for $ 18 million from the country's sovereign wealth fund to build the facility.
Reuters could not determine whether the fund, called the National Development Fund of Iran, was contributing. It could not be reached by phone for comment and did not respond to a request sent through the Iranian embassy in London.
Some of the documents reviewed by Reuters refer to intervention by members of the Revolutionary Guard and Iranian officials on behalf of Ghasemi to judicial authorities, explaining the secret project and its role in it. He was detained in Iran in 2015 for allegations of corruption related to IAC financial transactions. Ghasemi was later released without charge, said Amir Moghadam.
Ghasemi did not respond to requests for comments. Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, the late former head of the Revolutionary Guard missile program, is not related to Amir Moghadam. The late general's brother, the Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam, could not be reached for comment.
According to the letters reviewed by Reuters, IAC also held talks with a Chinese company about equipment sourcing. The company specified in the documents is government-sponsored China Engineering, Construction <, 75758.SZ>, also known as NFC.
In a letter to the head of the Revolutionary Guard rocket program in October 2011, Ghasemi of IAC wrote: "Following your instructions, we have reached an agreement with Mr. Li Xiaofeng to provide some of the necessary machinery and equipment through the Chinese NFC company." a German company and a Japanese company. The subject of the letter read: "Atomization of aluminum powder".
According to a letter Li sent to Ghasemi two months later, Li Xiaofeng was the deputy president and chief law officer of NFC.
The documents do not indicate where IAC ultimately bought the equipment used. Reuters was unable to identify the German and Japanese companies named in the letter. Li could not be reached for comment.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs answered questions about the NFC and IAC and said it had "no understanding of the situation you described". China "strictly adhered to international non-proliferation commitments, including decisions by the United States Security Council."
NFC told Reuters that it "has not exported or assisted anyone to obtain technology, equipment, or services related to the manufacture of aluminum powder for any purpose." The company said its business was limited to "areas of civilian use." It said that it complies with laws and regulations in China and host countries and complies with relevant United States Security Council resolutions.
Iran is identified as one of its markets on the NFC website and a 2005 press release identifying the Jajarm alumina plant as "NFC's technical change project". The Chinese company did not answer any questions about whether it offered IAC equipment, technology, and services related to the manufacture of aluminum powder.
"Survive the Sanctions"
Moghadam, the former official who is now in France, told Reuters that he had visited the Jajarm facility twice in 2015 and attended several meetings in Tehran between government officials and IAC managers. The managers called for "foreign currency access and said their military project needed government support to survive the sanctions," he said. The Vice President's Executive Office did not respond to requests for comments.
Following the Iranian nuclear deal with the world powers in 2015, the United States Security Council's previous provisions on ballistic missile activity were repealed and a new resolution was enacted. Resolution 2231 urged Tehran not to undertake any ballistic missile-related activities that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran and some of its allies argue that language does not make compliance mandatory.
The spokesman for the United States said the Security Council has not determined whether the manufacture of aluminum powder is covered by the resolution because the material can also be used for propellants for missiles or rockets that are not designed for the delivery of nuclear weapons. He added that the United States Secretariat was unable to determine whether the manufacture of the powder for military purposes was covered by the previous 1929 resolution.
(Reporting by Bozorgmore Sharafedin and Pratima Desai in London; additional reporting by Min Zhang and Tom Daly in Beijing, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Yuki Nitta in Tokyo and Michelle Nichols in New York; editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Veronica Brown)
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