But the telex, sent in 1992 and made public here for the first time, was not what it seemed. The real purchaser was not a university but a secretive research institute working for Iran’s military. The fluorine gas, investigators later concluded, was to be blended with uranium in a nuclear program that would remain hidden for 10 more years.
The document is part a trove of 1,600 formerly secret telexes obtained by nuclear researchers seeking to unearth the early history of Iran’s clandestine pursuit of nuclear technology. While nearly two decades old, the records offer an unusually detailed glimpse into Iran’s alleged efforts to defy sanctions to obtain sensitive technology — tactics that intelligence officials say continue even now.
Experts who studied the documents say they were struck by patterns of behavior that began early in the program and involved some of the same individuals who run the country’s nuclear efforts today, under the oversight of the same supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who came to power in 1989. The telexes and other records show Iranians using subterfuge and deception to obtain the parts they needed, and afterward issuing vigorous denials to U.N. nuclear officials, even when confronted with evidence.
“They stick with absolutist lines, and it makes it harder to trust them,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector who obtained the documents and provided a sampling of several dozen copies to The Washington Post.
Iran’s history of concealment and deceit has become more relevant now because of concerns that it is nearing a critical phase in its ability to develop an atomic bomb. Although the government has consistently denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, inspectors have struggled to understand why the Iranians have sought to hide their activities if their nuclear program is, as they contend, solely for peaceful energy production.
A team of technical experts from the the International Atomic Energy Agency traveled to Iran this week to pressure Iranian officials to come clean about past nuclear activities, including alleged research on building nuclear warheads. But the trip ended in failure, with IAEA officials being barred from a key military testing facility.
Iran has repeatedly dismissed suspicious documents about past nuclear work as forgeries. State-backed news media have compared the allegations about an arms program to the unfounded suspicions that Iraq had obtained nuclear weapons before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.