The Times: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is the man everyone would like to reach to learn the secrets of Iran’s nuclear programme. No one outside Iran has succeeded so far. The Times
Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is the man everyone would like to reach to learn the secrets of Iran’s nuclear programme. No one outside Iran has succeeded so far. The Times has seen a memo signed by Mr Fakhrizadeh, identifying him for the first time as the chairman of the Field for the Expansion of Deployment of Advance Technology (Fedat).
Intelligence sources say that this is the most recent cover name for the organisation running Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
The United Nations’ atomic watchdog has long believed him to be the head of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme, but Tehran, which jealously guards his secrets, has repeatedly rejected attempts to interview him.
Mr Fakhrizadeh, a physics professor and a former officer in the elite Revolutionary Guard, is no longer able to leave Iran because the UN Security Council imposed travel sanctions and an assets freeze on him. However, he is regarded as one of the regime’s most loyal servants.
The memo from Mr Fakhrizadeh, dated December 29, 2005, is addressed to the heads of 12 different departments that make up Fedat. Experts say that the grouping together of all these disciplines under a single military command points to nothing other than a weapons programme.
The Iranian Government denies the existence of any military nuclear programme, insisting that the only nuclear activities in the country are under the civilian control of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, which purports to be developing a nuclear power programme.
Western diplomats believe it to be little more than a front for a clandestine military programme, justifying the production of nuclear fuel despite the absence of a single home-grown nuclear power plant. The memo bears a close resemblance to documents presented at an extraordinary board meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna at the beginning of last year. Those documents included letters — to the same department heads as mentioned in the memo seen by The Times — that chastised staff for using the real names of military scientists. The Times’s document, which comes later, uses only their titles.
Fedat’s obsession with secrecy is evident in The Times’s other key document, an internal report from 2007 that was drawn up within the Centre for Preparedness at the Institute of Applied Physics, one of the organisation’s 12 departments, and lays out a four-year plan for the testing of a neutron initiator, which is a key component in a nuclear weapon. It also offers an insight into the structure of a programme that ensures as few people as possible gain a complete overview of it.
In one section, it discusses the outsourcing of some work to military-affiliated university departments. “In view of Iran’s situation . . we consider that for the moment the work should be carried out at other research centres,” the report says.
Some work is apparently too secret to be farmed out. “Work cannot usually be defined and performed by other research centres, so usually needs to be carried out by trustworthy personnel within the organisation,” the authors note. “The most appropriate way of obtaining the required personnel is to employ individuals who were involved in the relevant calculation projects in the past.”
That remark is just one in a string of references to previous experiments, suggesting a resumption of weapons work halted in 2003. One expresses concerns over whether sites previously used for experiments should be used again, presumably out of fear of external detection. “Decisions must be taken regarding the locations where such experiments used to be conducted,” it warns.
Fedat is the latest incarnation of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme that has gone through at least two transformations since 1990. Western intelligence agencies are in broad agreement that Iran’s nuclear programme turned from civilian to a military direction after the end of the devastating Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
The project began in direct response to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s early efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Fedat’s first incarnation was the Physics Research Centre, an entity that has been at the centre of IAEA investigations over the alleged procurement of sensitive nuclear technology. In 1999 it became the Organisation for Planning of Special Supply. Its organisational structure was different but it retained all the same scientific staff and disciplines. Mr Fakhrizadeh is believed to have taken up his post around 2000.
In 2002 an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, the first evidence of a clandestine Iranian nuclear programme. The American-led invasion of Iraq the following year spooked Tehran into suspending its weapons work and allowing in United Nations inspectors.
Iran’s failure to address compelling evidence of past weapons work or to allow inspectors access to individuals like Mr Fakhrizadeh led to the Security Council imposing sanctions and ordering Iran to stop enriching uranium while they investigated.
Intelligence sources say that the desire to conceal the programme further led to its second overhaul in 2003 when it became Fedat. In a recently leaked, internal confidential report, IAEA inspectors said they believed that by this point, Iran had already acquired all the know-how to build a nuclear bomb.
With Fedat, Tehran preserved that expertise and all its scientific personnel for future use while building a nuclear fuel stockpile and the focus swung to uranium enrichment, which could be carried out, at least partly, under the guise of civilian energy production. Intelligence sources say that this may be one of the reasons why evidence of weapon work since 2003 has been so hard to pin down.
“But the document you obtained, which appears to take the work back towards explicit work on nuclear weapons, is very hard to reconcile with the US National Intelligence Estimate that weaponisation work has not restarted,” said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.