On Wednesday 11 March, Iran’s Defence Minister, Hossein Dehghan, officially opened what was described by Iran’s Ministry of Defence as a ‘carbon fibre production plant’. Iranian state media has since published several images and videos of Dehghan’s tour of the interior of the site, which provide new insights into Iran’s carbon fibre-associated manufacturing capability.
Carbon fibre is a dual-use material with multiple applications in strategic industries. High-strength carbon fibre is used in aerospace and missile applications, as well as to manufacture rotors for uranium-enriching gas centrifuges. For these reasons, its supply is controlled by major control regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Wassenaar Arrangement. The provision of high-strength carbon fibre to Iran is prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions because of the material’s utility for Iran’s ballistic missile and uranium enrichment programmes.
While extensively procuring carbon fibre from abroad over the past decade, Iran has also sought to develop an indigenous carbon fibre manufacturing capability in order to overcome difficulties associated with its import. In August 2011, former Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi opened what the Iranian media described as Iran’s first carbon fibre production plant. Vahidi trumpeted the facility as a key step in overcoming sanctions on the supply of the material.
Experts, however, have pointed out that that the site was not capable of producing carbon fibre from scratch. It lacked the capability to produce polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a synthetic polymer resin that generally forms the primary production input in the carbon fibre-making process. The UN’s Iran Panel of Experts discussed existing media footage of this facility with external experts, who noted that due to various pieces of outdated equipment being used at the site – amongst other apparent shortcomings – the carbon fibre produced in the facility was not suitable for use in Iranian centrifuges.
Relevance of the new facility for Iran’s UN-prohibited programmes
The new site, according to media reports, is ostensibly capable of producing T-300 grade carbon fibre with an annual production capacity of 150 tonnes.
T-300 grade material is appropriate for use in making aerospace and missile components (as well as civilian goods from golf clubs to fishing rods). In 2009, for example, a Pakistani missile developer was apparently seeking T-300 grade carbon fibre from a Chinese supplier, according to a US State Department cable. The State Department noted that T-300 carbon fibre ‘can be used to produce missile components such as motor cases, re-entry vehicles, nose tips, propellant tanks, and rocket motor nozzles.’
Carbon fibre of T-300 grade is not ideal for making rotors for centrifuges, although Iraq, as David Albright and Andrea Stricker have noted, pursued a centrifuge rotor design that used T-300 grade carbon fibre in a mix with another form of material. T-300 grade carbon fibre is not controlled by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Would Iran’s centrifuge programme use T-300 grade carbon fibre produced by the new facility? Probably not. Iran’s IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuges are assessed to use a higher-strength form of carbon fibre, generally referred to as T-700, and Iranian procurers probably prefer material from established Western and Japanese manufacturers for perceived quality reasons.
Capability of the new facility
An initial assessment of the newly-revealed facility suggests that its capabilities are similar to that of the one unveiled in 2011. For their analysis of the original carbon fibre production line revealed in 2011, the UN Panel of Experts outlined the main production stages that were shown shown in media footage of that site:
- In the first stage of the production process, carbon fibre consists of pale coloured or white, fine, fibrous strands on rolls known as creels; the fibres are unspooled as they feed into an oxidation oven where they turn progressively darker shades of amber and eventually black.
- In the second stage of the production process, the now black fibres go through the process of carbonization, in which they are processed through a series of furnaces, from low to high temperature, to 2,000° C (in more sophisticated carbon fibre production, there would be a third, ultra-high-temperature furnace, which is subject to stringent export controls).
- In the third step of the process, the surface of the fibres is treated with a chemical abrasion process to make it rough and more receptive to a coating applied in the next stage.
- A glue-like treatment, referred to sizing, is applied to the surface of the fibres in the next stage, after which the fibres are dried and rewound on spool-winders.
Preliminary assessment appears to show these same processes being demonstrated at the new site. As this video from the US Department of Energy shows, the combination of these processes is usually characterised as carbon fibre conversion rather than carbon fibre production. Hence, Iran’s two ‘carbon fibre production plants’ may be better characterised as carbon fibre conversion facilities.
Like its predecessor, the newly-revealed carbon fibre facility is not thought to show any equipment capable of producing carbon fibre precursor, particularly polyacrylonitrile (PAN), the input material used in 90 percent of global carbon fibre-making and most likely also used by Iran. This suggests that Iran may well still rely on imported precursor material for its domestic carbon fibre manufacturing activity.
Location of the new facility
Iranian media outlets did not reveal the location of the new carbon fibre facility, and no exterior photographs which might provide hints to its location have so far been released. However, Project Alpha has found other evidence in open sources that suggest that the facility may be located in the Iranian city of Rasht.
In May of 2013, a senior Iranian official stated that a $500 million carbon fibre production plant was under construction in Rasht at the Sefidrud Industrial Estate. At the time of his statement, construction of the plant was supposedly 40 per cent complete. The official also stated that the Rasht facility would be of 150 ton capacity – the same size as the one opened last week by Minister Dehghan.
The coordinates of the Sefidrud Industrial Estate are provided at this site. An image from Google Earth of the area is shown below. If the new carbon fibre facility is indeed located in this area, further geospatial analysis and comparison with interior imagery of the site visited by Dehghan last week may determine its precise location.
The newly-revealed carbon fibre facility may be associated with Iran’s missile programme, based on other information made public by official sources.
In December 2013, the US State Department and Treasury added an Iranian company, Navid Composite Material Company, to the US Government’s list of entities involved in Iran’s proliferation activities. Navid, according to the State Department and UN Security Council, is a subsidiary of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Group, which develops and builds Iran’s missiles.
According to the text of the State Department’s designation listing, Navid was sanctioned because it was ‘building a carbon fibre production plant in Iran’. It had ‘contracted with Asia-based entities to procure a carbon fibre production line capable of producing 150 tons per year of carbon fibre probably suitable for use in ballistic missile components.’
Is the 150-ton capacity carbon fibre factory being built with involvement by Navid the same 150-ton capacity carbon fibre factory that is supposedly being built in Rasht – and the same one that was visited last week by Dehghan? The shared size of 150 tons may be a coincidence between two or even three different sites. Or, further analysis may reveal other evidence that can provide conclusive evidence of association between Navid and the new facility. (An apparent Navid employee, for example, lists Navid’s place of operation as Rasht on an online profile.)
Project Alpha is continuing to investigate the new carbon fibre facility and its assocations with Iran’s UN-prohibited programmes.