Iran has used online marketplaces such as Alibaba and eBay to purchase nuclear supplies as it built its nuclear program over the past decade despite international sanctions. A United Nations panel appointed to track Tehran’s violation of sanctions said that Iranian firms used e-commerce platforms to circumvent restrictions, reports Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg.
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Alibaba and eBay have acknowledged that they were facing problems with suspicious listings and shady merchants. Earlier this year, a Chinese regulator had slammed Alibaba for not doing enough to maintain transparency on its sites and remove fake listings. The U.S. officials are aware of Iran’s e-commerce adventures since 2007, but they couldn’t do much to stop the illegal procurement. That’s because there is no international body to enforce the rules.
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Alibaba is considering adding algorithms to identify suspicious searches for nuclear-related equipment, sources familiar with the matter told Bloomberg. Iran and world powers are currently negotiating a final deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. Terms of the deal state that Iran must not use e-commerce sites to buy supplies that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
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But it’s not going to be all that easy. Iran may continue to use covert channels to purchase such goods, which could undermine the whole nuclear deal. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has installed more than 19,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, compared to just a few hundred a decade ago. The UK-based Project Alpha estimates that Iran has imported about $250 million worth of nuclear supplies in the last decade, mainly via e-commerce platforms.
The problem for international authorities is that Alibaba specializes in selling industrial equipment. And many of the restricted items Iran seeks can also be used for peaceful purposes, which magnifies the challenge. For instance, gallium can be used to stabilize plutonium of a nuclear weapon or to make semiconductors. At the end of April, there were 4,397 listings of gallium on Alibaba.com.