U.S. security and law-enforcement officials say they have fresh evidence of recent efforts by Iran to evade sanctions and acquire metals from China used in high-tech weaponry, including long-range nuclear missiles.
Iran's efforts are detailed in a series of recent emails and letters between Iranian companies and foreign suppliers seen by The Wall Street Journal. Business records show one Iranian company, ABAN Commercial & Industrial Ltd., has contracted through an intermediary for more than 30,000 kilograms (about 66,000 pounds) of tungsten copper -- which can be used in missile guidance systems -- from Advanced Technology & Materials Co. Ltd. of Beijing. One March 2008 email between the firms mentions shipping 215 ingots, with more planned.
The United Arab Emirates has informed the U.S. that in September it intercepted a Chinese shipment headed to Iran of specialized aluminum sheets that can be used to make ballistic missiles. A month earlier, UAE officials also intercepted an Iran-bound shipment of titanium sheets that can be used in long-range missiles, according to a recent letter to the U.S. Commerce Department from the UAE's Washington ambassador.
Evidence of Iran's efforts to acquire sensitive materials also is emerging from investigations by state and federal prosecutors in New York into whether a number of major Western banks illegally handled funds for Iran and deliberately hid Iranian transactions routed through the U.S. One focus of the inquiries is the role of Italy, including the Rome branch of Iran's Bank Sepah and Italy's Banca Intesa Sanpaolo Spa. Banca Intesa said it is cooperating in the inquiries.
The developments could present President-elect Barack Obama with an early test in responding to what many Washington security officials now say is a rapidly growing threat to the region, including U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
All of the high-performance metals Iran has been acquiring also have industrial uses such as commercial aviation and manufacturing, making it difficult for intelligence agencies to be absolutely certain how the materials are being used. "We can't say we know it would, or would not, be used for military purposes," said proliferation expert Gary Milholland of the nonprofit Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, noting that broad economic sanctions on Tehran led by the U.S. mean Iran has to go to unusual lengths to find high-grade materials for industrial use as well as weapons.
Still, he added, "There doesn't seem to be any real doubt or debate whether Iran is going for the bomb or whether Iran is using front companies to import things. Everyone agrees on that around the world."
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency said they believe Iran could have enough fissile material for an atomic weapon sometime this year, though it would need to be further processed into weapons-grade uranium. That assessment was echoed Thursday by Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael V. Hayden. U.S. and European governments have grown increasingly alarmed in recent months at the speed they believe Iran is developing ballistic-missile and nuclear capabilities. Last year the United Nations Security Council, which includes China, formally imposed sanctions on Iran's military and most of its banks for nuclear proliferation activities.
A spokesman for Iran at its U.N. mission in New York declined to comment. China "has been strictly implementing" U.N. proliferation sanctions on Iran, said a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing. The export of restricted items such as high-grade metals, which include specialized aluminum and titanium, is prohibited, he added.
The patchwork of proliferation agreements don't cover certain materials. Sales to Iran of a powdered form of tungsten copper are prohibited by a nonproliferation accord China has agreed to adhere to, but documents about Iran's tungsten copper purchases refer to ingots, which aren't banned in the agreement though they can be used to make missiles. High-grade tungsten copper alloy withstands ultrahigh temperatures and thus can be used in the fins of long-range missiles to greatly enhance their accuracy, according to proliferation experts.
George Perkovich of the pro-disarmament Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said use of the ingots may be an attempt to legally circumvent the restrictions. Chinese merchants, he said, "take a legalistic approach to whether it is prohibited under the treaties," while on the Iranian side, "if there's a problem where somebody's not supposed to sell them stuff, their view is, that's the sellers' problem.' "
Because of economic sanctions and the small size of Iranian banks, the banks have long relied on big European multinational banks to finance their international trade and wire transfers. Many of those transfers flowed through New York City.
Documents detailing Iran's metals acquisition efforts are being reviewed by U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials, people involved in the matter said. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said he is conducting a broad inquiry into illegal transactions by Iran. Last week, Lloyds TSB of London agreed to pay $350 million to settle U.S. sanctions-busting charges with Mr. Morgenthau's office and the Justice Department. The bank admitted it violated U.S. law but said the practice has ceased.
"There are nine other banks that we think were doing this," said Mr. Morgenthau in an interview, including Barclays PLC of the U.K. A Barclays spokesman had no comment beyond a prior disclosure confirming the inquiry. Other banks under scrutiny in the probe include Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, people with knowledge of the inquiries said. Credit Suisse "is cooperating with the New York County District Attorney's Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and other governmental authorities," the bank said in a statement. A Deutsche Bank spokesman declined to comment.
ABAN Commercial & Industrial Ltd. had accounts at the Rome branch of Iran's government-owned Bank Sepah, records show. Bank Sepah has longstanding ties to Banca Intesa, although no evidence has surfaced to date showing that Banca Intesa facilitated illegal acquisitions of sensitive materials by ABAN, people with knowledge of the matter said.
ABAN is run by two top officials of Iran's Aviation Industries Organization, the documents show. That agency is already under U.S. and U.N. sanctions. Efforts to contact the firm by phone and fax for comment were unsuccessful.
An Oct. 14, 2007, invoice says ABAN contracted for 30,900 kilograms of tungsten copper alloy from a firm in China in exchange for €2.1 million ($2.8 million). Additional orders were made in 2008, according to a March 27, 2008, email to ABAN from Advanced Technology & Materials Co. "I was very happy talking to you on the phone," an AT&M executive told an executive at ABAN in the email. "By now we had sent 215 pieces" of tungsten copper, he added.
ABAN didn't respond to requests for comment. Dan Hong, a lawyer for AT&M, said in an email that AT&M received warnings several months ago of allegations "that we have business dealings with Iran." But he said the firm has never heard of ABAN. "AT&M never signed any contracts with and exported to Iran" the specialized metal, he added. "We checked our business records carefully."
Records show AT&M supplied the tungsten copper to an intermediary firm called Liaoning Industry & Trade Co. Ltd. That firm couldn't be reached for comment.
Another document reviewed by the Journal is a Jan. 10, 2007, message from an executive at a Chinese metals company to Shahid Sayyadi Shirazi Industries of Iran, regarding the impact of U.S. banking sanctions on payment for a shipment of unknown material. Marked "Top Urgent!" the letter observes that the payment was arranged through Bank Sepah.
The Chinese executives "are worrying the payment may be blocked by USA or UK government through their bank/treasury system," states the letter, from an executive other business records show had shipped tungsten copper to Iran. "You are kindly required to consider the matter and check carefully and seriously with Bank Sepah if the payment can be effected safely under the current situation."
Bank Sepah has denied financing illicit weapons programs. Shahid Sayyad Shirazi Industries is part of Iran's Ammunition Industries Group, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, and has been under U.N. sanctions since March 24, 2007. Efforts to contact the firm for comment were unsuccessful.
—Sabrina Cohen and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
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