The China-Iran Nuclear Pipeline

How to Shut It Down

Dark clouds are seen over Palais Coburg, the venue for nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, July 9, 2015. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

President Barack Obama has said that the final nuclear deal with Iran will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has likewise said that the deal “shuts off the four principal pathways to a bomb for Iran”—the Natanz uranium facility, the Fordow uranium facility, the Arak plutonium facility, and covert Iranian attempts to produce fissile material.

The Natanz, Fordow, and Arak pathways would involve Iran building a bomb mostly through work at known locations, with technology and materials that it already possesses. So long as the deal is in place, keeping these three pathways closed will depend largely on the vigor with which the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitor known locations and respond to readily detectible violations.

The fourth pathway, in contrast, would include Iran creating a secret, parallel new nuclear program with technology and materials covertly procured from foreign suppliers. Even with the nuclear deal’s managed access arrangements and dedicated procurement channels, both the United States and the IAEA will have limited capacity to detect either secret nuclear facilities within Iran or the covert receipt by Iran of nuclear-related materials.  It is therefore critical to be able to deter or prevent foreign suppliers from sending nuclear-related materials to Iran.

Despite this, little attention has been paid to the longtime leading suppliers of Iran’s nuclear program: ostensibly private brokers based in China. Foremost among them appear to be Karl Lee (also known as Li Fangwei) and Sihai Cheng, who, according to U.S. federal and state prosecutors, have shipped vast quantities of key nuclear materials to Iran.  Even at the peak of international sanctions against Iran, China has reportedly made little to no effort to stop these or other such brokers.

Although China claims otherwise, it seems likely that the Chinese government uses these so-called private brokers as proxies to assist Iran’s nuclear program. In that way, Beijing can

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