European security officials and former workers have raised questions… (Michael Birnbaum/TWP )
DINSLAKEN, Germany — For years, mystery surrounded an Iranian-controlled factory tucked away in this town of 70,000 in Germany’s industrial west.
The plant manufactured high-pressure gas tanks, but its managers seemed uninterested in making a profit. Potential investors were turned away. An expensive piece of machinery — precise enough to produce components for centrifuges and missiles — sat idle after a failed attempt to ship it to Iran. Finally, the factory, MCS Technologies, closed its doors late last month.
Since then, the mystery has taken another turn. European security officials and former workers have raised questions about whether the high-tech equipment and material at MCS could have been part of a scheme to aid Iran’s rogue nuclear program.
Questions have arisen about the tangled ownership of MCS, which until recently was tied to a former Iranian minister of intelligence, and about the blocked attempt to export sophisticated machinery to Iran.
MCS has never been cited for violating sanctions on trade with Iran, and one of the company’s owners said it has done nothing wrong.
“For sure, the Iranian people try all their best to turn around the sanctions, but not in my company,” said Eshagh Hajizadeh, a Canadian citizen who bought the assets of the company in 2011. “I never want anybody in this world to have access to nuclear. It is against humanity.”
With the United States, Germany and other Western countries trying to tighten sanctions on Iran to slow its nuclear program, the MCS mystery demonstrates the difficulty of tracking the flow of technology and material that have civilian and military applications.
“Where we have dual-use technology, it is not easy to control simply by checking goods,” said Wolfgang Schmitz, a spokesman for the German Customs Investigations Bureau. “You need more info about the contract and the possible criminal elements inside it.”
One of the dual-use materials at MCS was carbon fiber, which is often used in the aerospace and automotive fields because of its extreme strength, resistance to heat and light weight. MCS used carbon fiber to build high-
pressure gas tanks for compressed natural gas and hydraulic systems. More than 2,600 pounds of the material still sits inside the plant.
Carbon fiber’s strength and heat resistance also make the material essential for advanced centrifuges. The cylindrical machines spin at supersonic speeds to enrich uranium, which can be used to fuel civilian nuclear plants or, at higher concentrations, to make fissile material for atomic weapons.
U.N. inspectors and intelligence officials say Iran has been trying to build large numbers of the advanced centrifuges, known as IR-2Ms, which enrich uranium much faster than its current generation of centrifuges.
But the officials say Iran has been scouring the world’s black markets for the vital carbon fiber. This year, suspicions that Tehran might have discovered a source for the material rose when Iran announced plans to install 3,000 of the advanced centrifuges at its main enrichment facility in Natanz in the central part of the country.
“The Iranians always exaggerate, but they clearly are getting better at making the machines,” said a Europe-based diplomat whose government tracks Iran’s procurement efforts. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said Iran’s attempts to buy carbon fiber are well documented.
A web of connections
Experts who have studied Iran’s clandestine procurement efforts say obtaining material and expertise from the German factory could have helped overcome bottlenecks that have slowed Tehran’s nuclear progress. A former sister company in Iran, Pars MCS, was designated by the Canadian government in 2010 as a possible contributor to “Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities.”
Hajizadeh said that the German company had severed ties with Pars MCS and that business between the two companies had dwindled to a single contract since 2011. Two former employees said German engineers flew to Iran as recently as December 2011 to consult with Pars MCS. Hajizadeh said that only one German engineer went to Iran and that his only job was to service a machine sold to Pars MCS many years earlier.
Hajizadeh said MCS was shut down last month because it was losing $2 million to $3 million a year.
“Iran faces continual shortages of key dual-use goods for its centrifuge program,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington organization that researches nuclear weapons programs. “Acquiring a foreign company can allow direct access to some of those goods.”
In 2003, Iranian-operated companies bought Mannesmann Cylinder Systems in Dinslaken and changed the name to MCS. The company had been in business since 1887, but it was bankrupt, and its employees hoped that new owners meant a new beginning.