By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Iranian nuclear engineer Mohsen Fakhrizadeh lectures weekly on physics at Tehran's Imam Hossein University. Yet for more than a decade, according to documents attracting interest among Western governments, he also ran secret programs aimed at acquiring sensitive nuclear technology for his government.
Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have repeatedly invited Fakhrizadeh to tea and a chat about Iran's nuclear work. But for two years, the government in Tehran has barred any contact with the scientist, who U.S. officials say recently moved to a new lab in a heavily guarded compound also off-limits to U.N. inspectors.
The exact nature of his research -- past and present -- remains a mystery, as does the work of other key Iranian scientists whose names appear in documents detailing what U.N. officials say is a years-long, clandestine effort to expand the country's nuclear capability. The documents, which were provided to the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency, in recent months by two countries other than the United States, partly match information in a stolen Iranian laptop turned over by Washington.
IAEA officials say these documents identify Fakhrizadeh and other civilian scientists as central figures in a secret nuclear research program that operated as recently as 2003. So far, however, Iran is refusing to shed light on their work or allow U.N. officials to question them. After being presented with copies of some of the new documents, Tehran denied that some of the scientists exist.
"When the allegations are raised, Iran simply dismisses them," said a Western diplomatic official familiar with the agency's dealings with Iran. "It insists that the documents are mostly fakes."
The standoff over interview requests has cast a shadow over a five-year U.N. effort to excavate the truth about Iran's nuclear past. In that search, Western anxieties have been compounded by Tehran's reluctance to clarify the history of its interest in technologies that could be used for either nuclear power or weapons.
A similar set of uncertainties helped provoke the U.S. war with Iraq, which the Bush administration justified partly by positing that Baghdad was deliberately concealing nuclear weapons research from U.N. inspectors. The outcome of that invasion suggests caution, however, since U.S. troops were unable to find any convincing evidence of banned weapons work, and deposed Iraqi officials said they had been secretive to conceal from regional opponents that they had ended such work, not continued it.
In Iran's case, U.N. officials say, the new evidence does not prove that the scientists carried out plans to build a nuclear device, but shows that Fakhrizadeh and other scientists struggled to master associated technologies. Several of the scientists, including Fakhrizadeh, appear to have moved freely between military and civilian research venues.
The documents purport to show advanced research into a variety of nuclear-related technologies, including uranium ore processing, warhead modification and the precision-firing of high explosives of the type used to detonate a nuclear device. Other documents point to attempts by civilian scientists to purchase sensitive equipment of the kind Iran would eventually use in its uranium enrichment plants.
Some of the new documents came from inside Iran, according to European officials familiar with them. None specifically include the word "nuclear," and IAEA officials say there is no evidence that any of the plans advanced beyond the paper stage.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a major opposition group that claims to have informants inside Iran's government, contends in materials provided to The Washington Post that nuclear weapons design work persists and has migrated to universities and schools. But U.S. and U.N. officials say they cannot corroborate the group's claim.
Instead, U.S. intelligence officials have said that Iran worked on weapons design in the past but halted the research in 2003. But government officials and weapons experts acknowledge concerns over Iran's refusal to answer questions or explain what key scientists are doing now.
"It's not the first time we've seen individuals who seem to wear white hats but are working on very different projects behind the scenes," said Leonard Spector, a former Energy Department nonproliferation official who is now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He noted that other countries, particularly Pakistan, have used civilian scientists as cover for secret nuclear research.
Although the IAEA has not publicly described the contents of the new documents, the U.N. Security Council adopted new sanctions against Iran last week, in part because of what European leaders described as Tehran's "abysmal" performance in answering the IAEA's questions about past nuclear research.
"As long as Iran's choice remains one of non-cooperation, we for our part will remain determined to demonstrate the costs and consequences of that choice," British Ambassador Simon Smith said in a statement last week on behalf of Britain, Germany and France, which have taken the lead in trying to persuade Iran to stop making enriched uranium, a critical ingredient used in both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
Calls placed to Iran's U.N. mission in New York were not returned.
Fakhrizadeh is prominent in several of the documents, according to two officials who have seen them. A personnel chart listed him as the senior authority overseeing all the research projects. Another paper, purportedly signed by Fakhrizadeh, establishes spending guidelines for the research programs, while a third sets rules for communication among scientists, suggesting, for example, that researchers avoid putting their names on correspondence that might eventually become public, according to a Europe-based diplomat who viewed the documents.
Fakhrizadeh, 47, who became a Revolutionary Guard Corps member after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, is a former leader of the Physics Research Center, which U.N. officials say was heavily involved in drawing up plans and acquiring parts for Iran's first uranium enrichment plant. He was among eight Iranians placed under international travel and financial restrictions under the terms of a U.N. resolution adopted last year because of his alleged ties to "nuclear or ballistic missile" research, U.N. records show.
According to the Iranian opposition group, in addition to holding the university post, Fakhrizadeh recently was appointed the director of a new Center for Readiness and New Defense Technology, which is in Tehran and is under direct military command. Several of his deputies have been reassigned to nuclear departments at ostensibly civilian schools such as Shahid Beheshti University, also in Tehran.
"Fakhrizadeh is a key person, but he is not the only player," said Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the opposition group's foreign affairs committee.