An Iranian nuclear official unveiling fake uranium fuel disks, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claps, in Apri
An Iranian nuclear official unveiling fake uranium fuel disks, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claps, in April. Photo by AP
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The United Arab Emirates announced Wednesday that it intends to strictly enforce United Nations sanctions against Iran - a potentially significant move, since the UAE is one of Iran's biggest trading partners and serves as a key conduit for nuclear and missile components that are supposed to be barred to Tehran under UN Security Council sanctions.

The UAE, and particularly the emirate of Dubai, is a major base for straw companies that smuggle banned components to Iran. Many of these companies are controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or its senior officers.

According to UAE officials quoted by a local paper, Gulf News, the emirates have decided to crack down on companies and businessmen in their territory that help Iran evade the UN sanctions. Among other steps, the UAE plans to shut down 40 local and international companies that supply Iran with dual-use items, which can be used for either civilian or military purposes.

Any company found to have ties with the Revolutionary Guards or any other organization or individual specified in the four UN sanctions resolutions, will be shut down immediately, the officials said, as will any company found supplying Iran with banned dual-use items.

The decision apparently stems from heavy American pressure on the emirates. If carried out, it greatly increases the likelihood that the new round of sanctions approved by the Security Council this month will be more effective than previous ones at impeding Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Some 400,000 Iranians live and work in the UAE. Many of them are businessmen, and of these, many serve as fronts for the regime in Tehran. Annual trade between Iran and the UAE comes to about $10 billion a year, most of which is in imports to Iran.

The system works as follows: The Iranian government or the Revolutionary Guards send Iranian businessmen to the UAE. There, the businessmen set up local companies, either alone or with local partners, to create the impression that they have no connection with Tehran. These companies then buy equipment from overseas companies, ostensibly for their own use, while in reality the goods are sent on to Iran. Alternatively, the UAE companies sometimes set up their own overseas companies and have them do the purchasing.

In addition, many European and Asian companies have set up shop in the UAE for the purpose of trading with Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions. That, for instance, is how the smuggling ring set up by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, operated. Khan's ring is thought to have supplied most of the know-how and technology that Iran has used in its own nuclear program.

The UAE move comes on the heels of a European Union decision to impose additional sanctions of its own on Iran, beyond those called for in the UN resolution. The exact nature of these additional sanctions, however, has yet to be settled.

Also Wednesday, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Salehi, announced that Iran has succeeded in enriching 17 kilograms of uranium to a level of 20 percent. That amount is sufficient to provide all the fuel needed by Iran's medical research reactor, which requires fuel enriched to that level.

Salehi also announced that Iran is capable of enriching five kilograms of uranium a month to the 20 percent level. However, he said, it will not do so, as it already has enough for the medical reactor.

But Western intelligence agencies fear the need for fuel for its research reactor is just an excuse, and that Iran's real goal is to master the techniques needed to enrich uranium to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb. Getting to the 20 percent level is considered a much higher technological hurdle than getting from 20 to 90 percent.