THE Government has allowed the export of key nuclear weapons-grade material to Iran despite the fact that the Islamic fundamentalist country is trying to develop its own atomic bomb.
The BBC revealed today that the Department of Trade and Industry allowed a quantity of the metal beryllium – a key component for the manufacture of nuclear weapons – to be sold to the Tehran regime despite a ban on the sale of arms to the country.
Iran fought a ten-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and since the coup which replaced the Shah with Ayatollah Khomeini has been seen as one of the most dangerous Muslim states in the Middle East.
The BBC’s File on Four programme tonight will disclose that other countries also received beryllium despite Britain being signed up to an international agreement restricting the sale of the metal to countries trying to develop nuclear weapons including Iran.
The news came as Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the cabinet prior to tomorrow's debate of a recalled Westminster parliament on military action to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein partly because he is seeking to make his own nuclear weapons. The revelations have alarmed MPs who now plan to raise the issue in the House of Commons tomorrow and elsewhere.
Roger Berry the Labour MP who chairs the select committee which scrutinises controls on arms exports, has said he knew nothing about the sale of beryllium to Iran last year.
He said: “I’m so concerned that I will raise the issue with ministers.”
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said he was “extremely alarmed” at the news.
Fife North East MP Mr Campbell said: “These revelations are very disturbing. We are rightly concerned about nuclear proliferation in Iraq but on the face of it we have a similar problem in Iran.
“It is not enough to have a system for the control of arms exports. It has got to work. It seems that there are loopholes in this system that are extremely alarming.”
Britain has had an arms embargo on the sale of weapons to Iran since 1993 and is also a signatory of the international protocol which bans the sale of beryllium to named countries including Iran.
The metal has a limited number of hi-tech uses in civilian industry. It is mainly used for weapons and is one of the most important components of a nuclear bomb. Leading experts in the nuclear field are expected to say tonight that beryllium and other items which the DTI has admitted licensing for sale to Iran would amount to a shopping list for someone trying to build nuclear weapons.
Although the UK cannot export arms to Iran there is no trade embargo in place. The deal highlights the weaknesses of the UK’s much-vaunted new system for controlling the export of weapons set up in the wake of the arms to Iraq scandal.
One of the reasons for the system was specifically to stop new countries acquiring nuclear capabilities. Iran is a nation of particular concern to the Americans, with US President George W Bush accusing it of sponsoring international terrorism.
Along with Iraq and North Korea he named it as part of the terrorist “axis of evil”.
The Americans are understood to be concerned about these latest revelations. They show that Iranian secret service agents and procurement officials have worked hard in the UK to get beryllium and other sensitive nuclear material back to their government.
The programme also names other countries working on nuclear weapons which have obtained beryllium and other nuclear weapons components from the UK. One of those is Pakistan, apparently involved in a military stand-off with India – another nuclear power – over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Iran is still considered, despite a more moderate leadership, as one of the most dangerous Muslim countries in the world.
Its relations with Iraq remain tense and it has been highly critical of western military ventures in the Middle East.
However, during the attacks on Afghanistan it remained broadly neutral because of its opposition to the the Taliban.
Israel fears that if the Ayatollahs regained the sort of control of Iran they had after the overthrow of the Shah, nuclear weapons could be turned on the Jewish state.