DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has pursued a longstanding effort to buy banned components for its nuclear and missile programmes in recent months, a U.S. official said, a period when it struck an interim deal with major powers to limit its disputed atomic activity.
Vann Van Diepen, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, added that a Chinese businessman indicted in the United States in 2009 over sales of missile parts to Iran continued to supply such items despite U.S. pressure on China to tighten export controls.
Reuters was unable to reach the Chinese businessman, identified as Li Fangwei and also known as Karl Lee, for comment, as the mobile phone he previously used appeared to be out of service despite numerous calls made to it.
Contacted by Reuters on Feb 4, 2013, for an earlier story about his business, Li said he continued to get commercial inquiries from Iran but only for legitimate merchandise. Li said his metals company, LIMMT, had stopped selling to Iran once the United States began sanctioning the firm several years ago.
In Beijing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing that China was very clear in its stance on non-proliferation and seriously fulfilled its obligations to U.N. resolutions about export controls.
"As for individuals, we will investigate and deal with in accordance with the law those who break the law and rules," Hong added at Monday's briefing, without elaborating.
Such trade would breach a 2006 U.N. embargo banning the provision by any nation to Iran of materials related to its nuclear and missile development work.
Western experts say such low-profile procurement efforts by Iran date back many years, perhaps decades in the case of its nuclear activity.
In November last year Iran and six world powers struck a breakthrough agreement providing for Tehran to curb its most sensitive atomic activity in exchange for some limited easing of sanctions damaging its economy.
The deal took effect on January 20 and U.N. nuclear inspectors have verified that Iran has suspended higher-grade uranium enrichment, with the powers reciprocating by relaxing some sanctions.
Asked if he had seen a change in Iranian procurement behaviour in the past six to 12 months, a period that has seen a cautious thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations after decades of hostility, Van Diepen replied: "The short answer is no.
"They still continue very actively trying to procure items for their nuclear programme and missile programme and other programmes," he said in an interview on Sunday.
"We continue to see them very actively setting up and operating through front companies, falsifying documentation, engaging in multiple levels of trans-shipment ... to put more apparent distance between where the item originally came from and where it is ultimately going."
Asked for reaction to the allegation, a senior Iranian official replied: "No comment".
Van Diepen did not say what sort of components Iran had sought to obtain or which part of a government known for having competing hardline and moderate factions was responsible.
In the past, Western officials said Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards and the Defence Ministry - both hotbeds of opposition to any rapprochement with the West - were believed to control clandestine nuclear procurement efforts.
Iran denies Western allegations that it has long sought covertly to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying its uranium enrichment programme is solely a peaceful endeavour to yield electricity as well as isotopes for medical treatments.
In 2009, the New York County District Attorney unsealed a fraud indictment against Li and LIMMT on suspicion they had used false names to process payments for sales to Iran through several U.S. banks. In February 2013, Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Li for further alleged supplies to Iran.
It is not clear what, if any, steps U.S. officials or their Chinese counterparts have taken to stop or detain Li based on those allegations. China has no extradition treaty with Washington, and so the allegations have never been tested in any subsequent court proceedings.
An official at Dalian Carbon, a venture listed as a LIMMT front company by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2009, denied any wrongdoing when questioned by Reuters about Li Fangwei's activities.
Security officials who monitor compliance with Western and U.N. sanctions against Tehran said in 2013 that Dalian Carbon continued then to be one of many aliases used by LIMMT, the company the United States accuses of defying sanctions.
On Sunday, a manager at Dalian Carbon, who would only give his family name as Li, said he did not have Li Fangwei's latest contact details and had not been in touch with him for a while, but he added that any allegation that Dalian Carbon had been supplying Iran with missile parts was not true.
"It's not possible," the manager said, when asked whether the company was still exporting missile parts to Iran. "What the Americans say about us is not correct.
"We only produce goods for civil use, steel products ... I've no idea why the Americans singled us out. There's no way we could have exported those things to Iran. It's not possible for us to make missile parts. It's lies."
Van Diepen said Li Fangwei, the businessman, and his network were still active. He did not give specifics.
"He is one of the top serial proliferators, a major source of supply for the Iranian missile programme. Unfortunately he seems to continue to be able to obtain technologies for Iran by operating in and through Chinese territory," he said.
Washington had repeatedly worked with China to get it to act against Li, but thus far without result, he said. China had taken important steps on export control, providing cooperation in certain cases and installing a national export-control system that met a lot of international standards. It was really the implementation of that system that required work, he said.
In 2006, the U.S. Treasury barred Li from the U.S. financial system for allegedly selling goods with potential military uses to Iran.
Diplomats have said that Iran is meeting its commitments under the November deal, under which Iran suspended its refinement of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, a short technical stage away from high, bomb-grade enrichment, and stopped increasing its capacity to produce low-refined uranium, among other steps. Uranium forms the core of a nuclear bomb if enriched to a 90 percent fissile concentration.
The agreement, which has a six-month duration, was designed to buy time for talks on a final settlement defining the overall scope of Iran's nuclear work to end fears that it could be diverted to military ends.
Iran has one of the biggest missile programmes in the Middle East, regarding such weapons as an important deterrent and retaliatory force against U.S. and other adversaries - primarily Gulf Arabs - in the region in the event of war.
Van Diepen said that while there was no direct link between the level of Iranian illicit procurement and the negotiations on a settlement to the nuclear dispute, "obviously if the negotiations succeed then there should therefore be a corresponding decrease in Iranian proliferation activity
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, editing by Mark Heinrich)