Special Report: Inside Iran’s secret project to produce aluminium powder for missiles

24 Jun 2020

Special Report: Inside Iran’s secret project to produce aluminium powder for missiles

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Pratima Desai

June 24, 2020




LONDON (Reuters) - At the edge of the desert in North Khorasan province in northeast Iran, near the country’s largest deposit of bauxite, sits an aluminium production complex that the government has publicly hailed as a key part of its efforts to boost output of the metal.

But the site near the city of Jajarm is also home to a secret facility set up by Iran’s elite security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, that has been producing aluminium powder for use in its missile programme, according to a former Iranian government official and documents relating to the facility he shared with Reuters. Aluminium powder, derived from bauxite, is a key ingredient in solid-fuel propellants used to launch missiles.

Iran started producing the powder for military use more than five years ago, according to the former official, who from 2013 until 2018 was head of public relations and also parliamentary affairs envoy in the office of the vice president for executive affairs, which at the time oversaw some economic policies. The ex-official, Amir Moghadam, said he visited the little-known facility twice and that production was continuing when he left Iran in 2018.

Iran’s production of aluminium powder for use in missiles, which hasn’t previously been reported, was developed amid international sanctions designed to block the country’s efforts to acquire advanced weapons technology. The United States and allies view Iran’s missile capabilities as a threat to the region and the world.

Reuters reviewed more than a dozen documents relating to the aluminium powder project and people involved, dating from 2011 to 2018. One is a letter addressed to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from a Revolutionary Guards commander whose brother has been described by the Iranian state as the father of Iran’s missile programme.

In the letter, Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam described the Jajarm facility as a “project to produce missile fuel from metal powder” and said it played a significant role in “improving the country’s self-sufficiency in production of solid fuel for missiles.” The letter is undated but appears to be from 2017, based on references to events.

In response to questions from Reuters, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York, said: “We have no information on these claims and on the authenticity of documents.”

“We should reiterate that Iran has never had any intention to produce any nuclear warheads or missiles,” Miryousefi said. Iran has long said its missile programme is solely defensive.

The Revolutionary Guards oversee Iran’s missile programme. Its public relations office didn’t respond to questions when contacted by phone for this article. Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam did not respond to requests for comment. (He is unrelated to Amir Moghadam, the former official who detailed the programme to Reuters.) The offices of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani also did not respond to enquiries.

Amir Moghadam’s disclosures about the aluminium powder programme could intensify scrutiny in Washington of Iran’s missile efforts. The former Iranian official, who now lives in France, says he left Iran in 2018 after being accused of stirring unrest following public comments he made alleging the corruption of some government officials. He said he wanted to expose the programme because he believed Iran’s missile ambitions were not in the interests of Iranian people.

The United States has broad sanctions in place, including targeting Iran’s metals sector and ballistic missile programme. Those include restrictions on operations in, and transactions related to, Iran’s aluminium sector. The sanctions also target the Revolutionary Guards and third parties that provide material support to or conduct certain transactions with the Guards. The U.S. Treasury has a primary role in administering sanctions.

Asked whether Reuters’ new findings about the production of aluminium powder for military purposes indicated a sanctions violation, a U.S. Treasury spokesman said: “Treasury takes any reports of potentially sanctionable conduct seriously, and while we do not comment on possible investigations, we are committed to targeting those persons who support the Iranian regime and their malign activities around the world within our authorities.”

The United Nations has placed restrictions on Iran’s activity related to ballistic missile activity capable of delivering nuclear weapons. A spokesman said it wasn’t clear whether the aluminium powder activities revealed by Reuters would breach those restrictions. Jose Luis Diaz, spokesman for the U.N. Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said “the Security Council has not clarified whether the ability of Iran to produce aluminium powder for use as a missile propellant is inconsistent with the restrictive measures.”


Producing its own aluminium powder for use in missile propellants would give Iran greater control of the supply chain and quality, said Michael Elleman, Washington, DC-based director of the non-proliferation and nuclear policy programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a security think tank.