An Andover technology company was used by a Chinese citizen and an Iranian businessman to acquire parts for a Tehran-based firm tied to a nuclear weapons program there, according to a federal indictment unsealed Friday in Boston.
Sihai Cheng of Shanghai and Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili of Tehran allegedly plotted between 2009 and 2011 to send pressure measuring sensors, or transducers, ordered from MKS Instruments Inc. in Andover to Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Co., a Tehran-based business that has supplied parts to Iranian nuclear facilities.
Transducers are used in commercial products, but can also be used in gas centrifuges to convert natural uranium into a form suited for nuclear weapons, the indictment states.
Prosecutors said MKS Instruments sent the transducers to China without knowing they were ultimately bound for Iran. The company is cooperating with investigators and has not been charged in the indictment, said a spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, whose office is prosecuting the case.
Seth H. Bagshaw, chief financial officer for MKS, wrote in an e-mail Friday night that the company was aware of the announcement regarding “the indictment of a Chinese citizen, along with two Iranian companies, for conspiring to export Chinese and US-made pressure transducers to Iran, including products made by MKS.”
He said the investigation was announced in 2012. “MKS is not itself a target of the investigation and has provided assistance to the government throughout its investigation,” Bagshaw wrote.
Two Iran-based firms, Nicaro Eng. Co., a company run by Jamili, and Eyvaz Technic, are also charged in the indictment.
The indictment was unsealed Friday following Cheng’s arrest in February in the United Kingdom. Jamili remains at large.
Besides MKS products, Cheng allegedly supplied Eyvaz with materials from other sources beginning in 2005.
Cheng, who is in his 30s, appeared in a British court Friday and was remanded to custody pending an extradition hearing June 5 to bring him to Boston, authorities said. Court records in Boston did not list an attorney for him.
US sanctions ban the exporting of any goods, technology, or services from the United States to Iran, the indictment says.
The conduct outlined in the indictment is not unique, said Jim Walsh, an international security specialist and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.
“It is widely assumed that Iran has engaged in illegal practices to support nuclear projects,” Walsh said. “They have admitted to it in the past, and it probably continues to this day.”
He added that with “the restrictions in place that are supposed to interdict or prevent this, it is not a surprise that importation is subject to extralegal methods, that China, along with Malaysia and other countries, are supplying sensitive nuclear parts.”
Still, Walsh cautioned, international monitors are watching Iran’s facilities “no matter what they are importing.”
According to the indictment, Jamili told Cheng via e-mail in 2007 that he was supplying parts to Iran for “a very big project and secret one,” court records show.
In February 2009, Jamili wrote to Cheng that Eyvaz Technic was seeking to obtain a type of transducer. Eyvaz has “supplied parts for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons,” the indictment states.
After receiving the 2009 e-mail, Cheng allegedly plotted with unidentified coconspirators at MKS-Shanghai, a wholly owned Chinese subsidiary of MKS in Andover, to set up front companies to pose as the intended recipients of the materials, which were ordered from the Andover office.
In addition, MKS-Shanghai employees listed other legitimate Chinese companies as recipients in purchase orders sent to Andover, authorities said.
More than 1,000 orders for MKStransducers with a combined value of over $1.8 million were placed between April 2009 and January 2011, the indictment said. Once the parts arrived in China, Cheng had them shipped to Eyvaz, the Iranian company accused of supplying material for Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
Prosecutors wrote that MKS in Andover “unwittingly assisted MKS-Shanghai in fraudulently obtaining an export license for a large quantity of pressure transducers.”
Authorities say there is evidence MKS products reached the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran, which began operating thousands of gas centrifuges as early as 2007.
“Publicly available photographs of Natanz [with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] show numerous MKS pressure transducers attached to Iran’s gas centrifuge cascades,” the indictment says.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, though the country is suspected of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Iranian officials and negotiators from the United States and its allies reached an interim deal last year providing Iran limited easing of sanctions for uranium and plutonium curbs.