Jeffrey LewisSticks and Stones: China, Iran and the UCF

In 1998, China backed out of a contract to build a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) for Iran—a victory for US nonproliferation policy during the Clinton Administration.

Iran built the facility using the designs China had already provided. Apparently, there were some hard feelings between Tehran and Beijing.

Dr Mohammad Saeidi (Saeedi or Sa’idi, pictured right), AEOI deputy for planning and international affairs, told Keyhan that the Chinese hurt his feelings:

When the Chinese officially announced in the year 1375 (1996), and then after two years of negotiations in the year 1377 (1998), that they were not ready to complete this project and put it into operation, I along with another one of the organization’s deputies paid a visit to China to see if we could convince them to do at least a part of the work, or else give us the complete UCF designs, so that we could try and carry out the project ourselves on that basis.


Perhaps there were times when the Chinese even mocked us and said we were not on a level to accomplish this task. One of our hard days in Beijing was the day when the Chinese sarcastically told us that we wouldn’t be able to carry out this project. They told us that even if we managed to do anything, we would only make some headway in the primary stages and encounter difficulties in the next high-tech stages of the project, just as they did when they reached those stages, and then the Russians came to their assistance. Hearing that remark was really hard for us. Nevertheless, that remark by the Chinese was probably one of the most effective, sweet shocks that struck the Atomic Energy Organization and convinced us that we had to design and build the UCF facilities all by ourselves.

What is really interesting about this interview is that it provides some backstory to an event in 1990s. After the United States secured a pledge from Jiang Zemin to cancel the sale, US intelligence discovered “secret negotiations” between Tehran and Beijing for anhydrous hydrogen fluoride (AHF), officials with access to U.S. intelligence told the Washington Post.

Officials told the Post “they have additional intelligence, so sensitive that it cannot be fully described, that gives them strong confidence China is cutting off nuclear assistance to Iran. Without specifying details, they said they have hard evidence that China so notified Iran …”

That sounds like an NSA intercept I would love to see.

The whole article, entitled “Dr Sa’idi Views Technical History of Iran’s Nuclear Activities Since 1970” (Keyhan 27 April 2005), is well worth reading. Note that Saeidi refers to “free market” transactions that are distinct from “normal deals”; from the context, I think he was saying “black market”—maybe a euphemism or a bad translation.