During the past quarter century, the United Arab Emirates have enjoyed a unique position in the world: they, more than any other country, have helped illicit traders mask the true destination of cargo. And unfortunately for us all, much of that cargo has helped build weapons of mass destruction. By routing secret shipments through the Emirates, India evaded international controls on its plutonium-producing reactors, Libya got centrifuges for enriching uranium, and both Iran and Iraq acquired key components for their nuclear and missile efforts. The Emirates also served as headquarters for history’s largest nuclear smuggling ring—the one operated by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan. It supplied the means to make nuclear weapon fuel to Iran, Libya and North Korea—all at the same time—and even threw in a tested nuclear weapon design.
Listed below are the more important shipments that have come to light. They are surely but a small fraction of the total. What they reveal is that the Emirates are not a safe destination for sensitive goods. For twenty five years, what has gone in the front door has gone out through more back doors than one can count. For that reason, the United States should not begin nuclear trade with the Emirates—as is now being proposed—until there is solid proof that the Emirates have changed their ways. So far, such proof is entirely lacking.
Dangerous transshipments through the U.A.E.: 1982 to 2009
1982: A West German sends seventy tons of heavy water (a key nuclear reactor component) through Dubai (one of the Emirates) from China; sixty tons are forwarded to India, which is developing nuclear weapons, and ten to Argentina, which is interested in doing so.
1983: The same West German sends fifteen tons of heavy water from Norway and 6.7 tons from the Soviet Union through the U.A.E. to India.
1985: According to documents from German customs, employees of a German firm manufacture uranium enrichment components that are sent to Dubai. French investigators allege the final recipient is Pakistan.
1985 – 1986: The West German sends 6.8 tons of Soviet heavy water through the U.A.E. to India that could have been used to start the Dhruva reactor, devoted to making plutonium for atomic bombs.
March 1989: A firm owned by the Indian government ships through Dubai to Iran sixty tons of thionyl chloride, which can be used to manufacture mustard gas and nerve agents.
May – June 1989: One hundred metric tons of centrifuge-grade maraging steel are reportedly delivered from Belgium through Dubai to Iraq.
1990: A Greek intermediary claiming to represent A.Q. Khan offers Iraq an atomic bomb design, promising that any required materials could be shipped via Dubai.
1994 – 1995: A Sri Lankan based in Dubai organizes the transshipment of two containers of centrifuge components from Dubai to Iran, on behalf of A.Q. Khan, for $3 million.
1996: The German government warns its exporters that Iranian companies charged with procuring weapons are active in Dubai.
June 1996: A Dubai company that ships impregnated alumina, which can be used in the manufacture of nerve gas, to Iran is identified in a U.S. court.
1997 – 1998: A U.S. company illegally exports two STX gas monitors via the U.A.E. to Iran. The monitors can be used in chemical and biological weapons production.
1998: According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, a Dubai company transfers U.S.-origin ferrography laboratory equipment to Iran without authorization.
March 1998: According to the U.S. government’s Iraq Survey Group (I.S.G.), the Iraqi Intelligence Service is using bribes to circumvent customs inspections in Dubai.
September 1998 – February 2001: An Indian company allegedly sends ten shipments of materials used in the manufacture of rocket propellant and missiles to Dubai and Jordan without the required export license. Indian court documents state that the consignments “appear to have been diverted to Iraq for assisting their weapon building programme.”
November 1998 – February 2000: According to a U.S. indictment, a Dubai company tries to export U.S. computer items to the Iranian Ministry of Defense, which is involved in missile development.
2001: U.A.E. companies act as intermediaries in the partial delivery of fiber-optic and military communications contracts from South Korea to Iraq, according to the I.S.G.
September 2001: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a U.A.E. company purchases $16,000 of military radar components from the U.S. and transships them to Pakistan.
September 2001 – March 2003: A U.A.E. company orders super servers, motherboards, and computer chassis from the U.S. and forwards them to Iran.
October 2001: A U.A.E. company facilitates trade in ballistic missile-related goods from China to Iraq, according to the I.S.G.
December 2001 – March 2002: According to the U.S. Commerce Department, a company in Dubai exports controlled telecommunications devices from the U.S. to Iran via the U.A.E.
February 2002 – November 2008: According to a U.S. indictment, two Iranians residing in the U.S. export laboratory equipment and fuel cell systems to Iran via the U.A.E.
May 2002: The German government warns its exporters that since 1998 Iraq has been procuring items through Dubai.
2003: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a U.S. company illegally exports to the U.A.E. restricted graphite products that can be used in nuclear reactors and nose cones of ballistic missiles; the products are then forwarded to Pakistan.
May 2003 – February 2004: According to a U.S. indictment, a U.A.E. company exports a U.S. satellite communications system to Iran without the required license.
June 2003: Trade with Iran through Dubai’s ports is reported to have been twelve billion dirhams in 2001, an increase from 4.3 billion in 1997.
October 2003: The U.A.E.’s Director of Customs refuses a U.S. request to detain an illicit shipment of sixty-six U.S. triggered spark gaps (which can serve as nuclear weapon triggers) through Dubai to Pakistan.
October 2003: Five containers of centrifuge components, shipped through Dubai, are seized en route to Libya. The items are part of four shipments to Dubai between 2002 and 2003.
October 2003: Two weeks after the seizure of the centrifuge components, a Sri Lankan arranges the transshipment to Libya, via Dubai, of an electrical cabinet and power supplier-voltage regulator on behalf of an associate of A.Q. Khan.
December 2003: According to a U.S. indictment, a Dubai company attempts to export U.S. pressure sensors to Iran.
January 2004 – November 2006: According to a U.S. indictment, two managers of a U.A.E.-based company import electronic components that could be used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from the U.S. to the U.A.E., and then forward the components to Iran.
January 2004 – May 2008: According to a U.S. indictment, an Iranian residing in the United States and ten other defendants export thirteen types of military aircraft parts to Iran via the U.A.E.
September 2004: The I.S.G. lists twenty U.A.E. firms that are suspected of having acted as front companies for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and says that the U.A.E. was a transit location for prohibited goods. The I.S.G. also concludes that the U.A.E. and Iran were the most frequent destinations for Iraqi smuggled oil.
September 2004: According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an American attempts to ship over one hundred U.S. pressure sensors to the Iran via the U.A.E.
2005: More than 300 Iranian companies are known to have operated in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Free Zone.
July 2005: The German government warns its exporters that trading companies in Dubai are being used to arrange and finance proliferation activities, especially with Iran.
Summer 2005 – Spring 2007: According to a U.S. indictment, an Iranian based in Dubai causes military aviation parts to be exported from the U.S. to the U.A.E., Thailand and other locations for transshipment to Iran.
August 2006 – February 2007: According to a U.S. indictment, an Irish company ships thirty-two U.S. origin aircraft bolts to Dubai with invoices indicating that the final destination of the bolts is Iran.
October 2006 – June 2007: According to a U.S. indictment, two naturalized U.S. citizens procure U.S.-made military aircraft parts and cause them to be exported to a company in Dubai and forwarded to Iran.
August 2007: The U.A.E. announces a law for the control of exports and imports of strategic goods, including military equipment, chemical and biological materials, and dual-use items.
2007 – 2008: The U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Justice pursue approximately twenty export violation cases involving transshipment of controlled items from the U.A.E. to Iran, Pakistan and India.
April 2009: Canadian authorities charge a Toronto resident with attempting to ship ten U.S. pressure transducers, which can be used for uranium enrichment, from the U.S. to Iran via Dubai.