Iran in the market for carbon fiber?

An Associated Press report says Iran might be seeking carbon fiber for use in cars powered by natural gas; officials fear that it is being sought for uranium enrichment.

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The Associated Press (AP) reported on March 12 that two diplomats from nations in the International Atomic Energy Agency (Vienna, Austria) say Iran's national car company has made plans to purchase large quantities of carbon fiber, which is under U.N embargo because it could be used in the country's nuclear program. The automaker's chief executive denied it. The two diplomats independently told the AP that their countries' intelligence agencies had gathered information that Iran Khodro executives were planning international orders for carbon fiber.

Some would be used for fuel tanks in a new car that runs partly on compressed natural gas, the diplomats said. But carbon fiber is also a component of advanced centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Iran is enriching uranium that it says it wants only as nuclear fuel. The U.S. and others fear it could be used in nuclear weapons.

The report says that Iran Khodro head Manouchehr Manteqi, acting on orders of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, has "instructed a limited number of senior company executives to make the procurement as soon as possible," the diplomat said. Manteqi vehemently denied that, according to the AP. "Reports that we are after carbon fiber are wrong," he told reporters in Tehran Wednesday, responding to a question from the AP.

Iran Khodro officials said last month that their new Soren ELX sedan would use a hybrid engine that could run on diesel and natural gas. They offered no details of the materials it would use, but carbon fiber would be a good candidate.

The report also says that Iran has used carbon fiber in the rotors of new, advanced centrifuges known as the IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4, which spin uranium gas to produce enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium can be used as nuclear fuel. Much more enriched, it can be used in a warhead. The AP says Iran has not said where it got the carbon fiber used in the IR-2, IR-3 and IR-4. It has displayed only a few finished models, a possible indication that it lacks carbon fiber and other materials under U.N. embargo.

Because the U.N. prohibits sale of carbon fiber to Iran for any purpose, any purchases by Tehran would have to be through middlemen instead of directly from U.S., European or Asian manufacturers. Zsolt Rumy, the head of carbon fiber supplier Zoltek (St. Louis, Mo., USA), told the AP that in the case of natural gas tanks and centrifuge rotors, the specifications can overlap. "There is no reason why the same kind of carbon fiber cannot be used for both," he said.