By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Belarus is the latest country that Western powers suspect of helping Iran to skirt U.N. sanctions aimed at preventing Tehran from expanding its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, Western diplomats told Reuters.
If the suspicions are confirmed, already isolated Belarus would join China, Russia, Syria, North Korea, Turkey and other states Western powers believe have helped Tehran flout U.N. measures since the Security Council adopted its first sanctions resolution against Iran in late 2006.
The suspicions are likely to have been raised during a visit by several members of a U.N. panel of experts to Belarus this week to discuss compliance with the U.N. ban on selling Iran nuclear and missile technology, diplomats said.
Tehran, accused by Western powers and their allies of developing nuclear weapons capability under the guise of a civilian atomic energy program, says its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity. Iran also dismisses all sanctions against it as illegal.
Diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Belarus is beginning to act as a kind of middleman to help secure Iranian access to Russian technology.
"Belarus is becoming a key element in Iran's efforts to develop its SSM (surface-to-surface missile) and nuclear capabilities, especially with regard to navigation and guidance products, which are defined as dual-use," a diplomat said.
"Belarus is becoming increasingly important to Iran, due to the drastic reduction in Iran's ability to procure products from countries such as China, Russia and Dubai, which used to be its major sources of such procurement."
Several Western diplomats confirmed his remarks about Iran and Belarus, including the Iranian interest in navigation and guidance technology for the missile program.
Belarus quickly denied the charges.
"This information is wrong. Belarus abides, in a very responsible way, by U.N. sanctions and has never violated them," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said. "This information can be considered as another attempt to cast a shadow over our country."
Russia's U.N. mission had no immediate comment.
BELARUS IS 'ON OUR RADAR'
Belarus has been under U.S. and European Union sanctions since President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, launched a crackdown on protesters in December 2010 following a presidential election that Lukashenko's critics say he rigged.
The country is now in the throes of economic crisis.
One diplomat from a country that has been critical of Iran's nuclear program gave an example of how Belarus has entered into the picture.
He cited intelligence information that a Belarussian businessman named Yuri Charniauski has been trying to secure technology for his company TM Services from a Russian firm named Optolink to sell it to Iran.
Charniauski, who spoke with Reuters by telephone from Belarus, denied the allegation, saying he had no business dealings with Iran.
"Never," he said, adding he had neither contacts in nor connections to Iran. "I'm not working for this country ever. ... Optolink has this same information."
Optolink general-director Yuri Korkishko told Reuters that Charniauski's firm was planning to purchase an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) from Optolink, which Charniauski said is for Belarus' National Technical University. The deal is TM Services' first transaction with Optolink.
IMUs are a key navigation and guidance component for guided missiles, as well as aircraft, watercraft and spacecraft.
Korkishko said TM Services was now Optolink's official distributor in Belarus. He said he was unaware of any links between Iran and Charniauski or his firm but acknowledged that Iran, like Pakistan, has expressed interest in Optolink's products in the past.
"We do not (work) with Iran at all," he said. "Iran, Pakistan -- I am receiving all sorts of requests from them, but we never reply ... We do not need it."
Diplomats said they were interested in hearing what the authorities in Minsk told representatives of the U.N. Security Council's expert panel this month. The panel members were expected to end their visit this week.
"I think it's good that Belarus knows that it's on our radar," one diplomat said. "Hopefully it will think twice about helping Iran break the law."
As the United Nations, United States and European Union have tightened their sanctions on Iran, its preferred suppliers of nuclear and missile technology in countries like Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates have become increasingly reluctant to do illegal business with Tehran, envoys say.
The diplomats say as the stranglehold on Iran's nuclear and missile procurement has tightened, so has the monitoring of Iran by Western intelligence agencies, which have become increasingly adept at uncovering illicit attempts by Tehran to import nuclear technology.
"Sanctions are constraining Iran's procurement of items related to prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile activity and thus slowing development of these programs," the Security Council's panel of experts on Iran said in a recent report.
"At the same time, Iran's circumvention of sanctions across all areas, in particular the use of front companies, concealment methods in shipping, financial transactions and the transfer of conventional arms and related materiel, is willful and continuing," said the confidential report.
(Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow and William Maclean in London; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and John O'Callaghan)