The Washington Post’s dubious story on Iran ‘centrifuge’ magnets

Yousaf Butt at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists writes: Last week, the Washington Post reported that “purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 … ring-shaped magnets” and that such “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines … [are] a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program.” As evidence, the Post’s Joby Warrick cited a report authored by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS); dated Feb. 13, the report says that an Iranian firm, Jahan Tech Rooyan Pars Co., made an inquiry “posted on a Chinese commercial website … to buy 100,000 ring magnets.” As Warrick goes on to explain: “it is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.”

There are serious deficiencies in both the Washington Post story and the assertions in the ISIS report. Given that issues of war and peace may hang on the veracity of such claims, the assertions warrant careful scrutiny.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines.” Such ceramic ring magnets are everyday items and have been used in loudspeakers, for example, for more than half a century. The ISIS report neglects to explain the many other applications for such ceramic ring magnets and jumps to the conclusion that the inquiry is surely related to Iran’s nuclear program. Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. Such magnets are used in a variety of electronic equipment. For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

This is not the first time ring magnets have surfaced in allegations related to centrifuge applications. Almost exactly a decade ago, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, then-director of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei said that reports regarding similar ring magnets in Iraq were unrelated to centrifuges: [Continue reading...]

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