Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons research is in the news again, now that Iran has agreed to provide “information and explanations” to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency “to assess Iran’s stated need or application for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators.”  (For background and discussion, see this post by Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner.) Aaron Stein provides us with a look at how the work of academic researchers in Iran may have flowed into military nuclear applications. -Ed.

Sharif University after the Revolution

After the 1979 revolution, thousands of Western trained academics left Iran. After assuming power, Ayatollah Khomeini oversaw a so-called Cultural Revolution where universities were closed for three years between 1980-1983 and the curriculum was purged of content deemed to be antithetical to the tenets of the revolution. The mass exodus had a noticeable impact on the country’s scholarly output. In 1975, for example, Iranian scientists published 305 ISI-recognized publications in scholarly journals. In 1978, the number of journal publications grew to 450, before falling to 398 in 1979. In 1980, the number fell further 384. And, by 1985, Iranian academics only published 111 articles in academic journals. [1]

Shortly before the revolution, a group of physicists and mathematicians began to meet every Tuesday in Balbosar, a town in north Iran near the Caspian Sea, to conduct scholarly research. The Shah graciously picked up the tab. After the revolution, the group disbanded. Many left for positions in the West. Some went to Tehran and began to work at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Others looked for work elsewhere in Tehran. The ones who stayed after the revolution continued to meet every Tuesday at the University of Tehran’s Institute of Physics. The bulk of the Tuesday group’s remaining members worked at Sharif University – the only university in Iran where the core members of the physics faculty remained after the revolution.

Iran formally authorized PhD programs in 1988/1989, after Reza Mansouri, an Austrian-trained physicist, convinced the education minister that Iran had the homegrown talent to do so. Sharif had been holding PhD-style seminars for interested students after the Cultural Revolution and was able to quickly formalize its program after it got the green light to do so from the education minister.

An Illicit Procurement Network?

In 1987, Iranian interlocutors met with S. Mohamed Farouq, a businessman representing A.Q. Khan, at his workshop in Dubai. Farouq provided Iran with a 15-page document describing the procedures for the reduction of UF6 to uranium metal and the machining of enriched uranium metal into hemispheres. He also gave them a list of European suppliers that manufacture the dual-use technology needed to develop the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Iran – unlike Libya – initially opted for the do-it-yourself centrifuge model and wanted to build its nuclear infrastructure on its own. However, in order to do so, they needed to import the specialized equipment needed to produce enrichment and conversion technology. Iran appears to have entrusted this task to Dr. Seyyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh, a former faculty member at Sharif University. As best as I can tell,  Shahmoradi was not part of the Tuesday group meetings, but was one of the core group of faculty that chose to stay at the university after the revolution. (I am happy to be proven wrong on this point.)

In December 1993, Mark Hibbs reported that the United States had grown suspicious about the items Sharif University was trying to purchase from European suppliers. The Germans agreed. An unnamed senior German export control official told Hibbs, “If an end-use statement says equipment is destined for Sharif University, the transfer will be categorically blocked.” (Mark Hibbs, “IAEA says it found no non-peaceful activity during recent visit to Iran,” Nucleonics Week, vol. 34, no. 50, 16 December 1993).

In March 1994, Hibbs reported that German Intelligence believed the “Physics Research Center (PHRC) at Sharif University [was] engaged in defense procurement, including procurement of ‘nuclear-related materials’.” (Mark Hibbs, “Sharif University Activity Continues Despite IAEA Visit, Bonn Agency Say,” NuclearFuel, 28 March 1994). We now know that the assessment was based on telex data documenting in detail the PHRC’s efforts to acquire imported vacuum equipment, magnets, a balancing machine, 45 gas cylinders each containing 2.2 kg of fluorine, and a uranium hexafluoride mass spectrometer – all of which could be used in the production of conversion equipment and centrifuges for enrichment. (To be fair, Shahmoradi could have wanted this equipment for the university’s physics department. Gareth Porter writes about the issue here. I am also sure he discusses this in his book, but I have not read it yet.)

The United States intelligence community makes makes clear that they believe that the weapons program was separate from the AEOI’s work at the TNRC, Kalaye, and then Natanz. The IC backdates the start of Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program to “at least the late 1980s.”  At least? As Jeffrey noted in this piece for Foreign Policy, the  intelligence community uses unique language when drafting National Intelligence Estimates. I presume that the IC used the words “at least” on purpose. I think the “at least” means that the US intelligence community has some level of “confidence” that there were discussions about weaponization before the PHRC procurement network got up and running in 1988/1989.

A Compartmentalized Program

According to my research, Iran made the decision to proliferate sometime after March 1984, but before the end of 1985. However, after making the decision to do so, the Islamic Republic faced a rather large problem – they had very few scientists capable of implementing a top-down directive to develop the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. In fact, the only place with an intact physics faculty was Sharif University. Sharif was therefore a logical place for a potential proliferator – working outside of the aegis of the AEOI – to go to understand documents describing the manufacture, assembly, and operational processes for the P-1 centrifuge. Thus, if one assumes that the US is correct in its assertion about the start of Iran’s weapons program, Shahmoradi must have been a trusted confidant of someone higher up in the regime, who also happened to work at the right place at right time to support a separate enrichment program. However, it appears that the military program ran into trouble and eventually began to take its cues from the AEOI’s centrifuge research sometime in the early 1990s.

According to Iran, the AEOI’s testing of the P-1 took place at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center before being moved to the Kalaye workshop in 1995. Iran has admitted that it had trouble manufacturing centrifuge components on its own and did not introduce UF6 into the P-1 until sometime in 1999. Thus, it appears that the Khan list purchased in 1987 was given to the AEOI – who then developed their own procurement networks for components – and to Shahmoradi. (It is easy to see the basis for the 2007 NIE’s conclusions.) The two programs, however, appear to have both relied on the same facility to manufacture the centrifuge components. Thus, when the AEOI made progress in 1999, the military program also benefited.

In the late 1990s or early 2000 (who wants to bet it was sometime after the introduction of UF6 into the P-1 in 1999?), the PHRC was consumed by a larger entity, known as the AMAD plan. The AMAD plan’s executive director is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Mahabadi), who appears to have moved the focus of the weapons program away from procurement and towards weaponization. The weaponization allegations include cooperation with Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Ukrainian-born scientist who worked at a Soviet nuclear weapons lab on the production of nanodiamonds. Danilenko worked in Iran with Shahmoradi from 1996-2002 before returning to Russia. I hope to publish more on this in the future, but Danilenko is alleged to have provided Iran with the design information for a R265 shock implosion system - a multipoint unlensed system that uses a castable explosive mixture of TNT and RDX to generate a uniform shock wave to compress graphite to produce nanodiamonds.

Iran is alleged to have tested the R265 with Tungsten substituted for uranium in 2003 and used a variety of diagnostic equipment to monitor the symmetry of the compressive shock wave. The timing suggests that Iran had the diagnostic equipment on hand before the August 14, 2002 NCRI revelations prompted Iran to begin to reevaluate its nuclear policy.  After the 2003 “halt order,” Fakhrizadeh is alleged to have kept his bureaucratic role in the weapons program, first with an entity known as the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT), which continued to report to MODAFL, and later, in mid-2008, as the head of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) in Tehran. According to information given to the IAEA, in February 2011, Fakhrizadeh moved from MUT to an adjacent location known as the Modjeh Site, where he now leads the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND). Shahmoradi – who reportedly had some role in the AMAD Plan – now works at Malek Ashtar  University. (In an indication that Shahmoradi continues to lecture about nanodiamonds, a student at MUT co-authored a paper on the “Influence of Cooling Medium on Detonation Synthesis of Ultradispersed Diamond” in 2009.)

The November 2011 Board Report notes that researchers at Shahid Behesti University and Amir Kabir University have published papers relating to the generation, measurement, and modelling of neutron transport. The Agency also found “other Iranian publications which relate to the application of detonation shock dynamics to the modelling of detonation in high explosives, and the use of hydrodynamic codes in the modelling of jet formation with shaped (hollow) charges.” The Agency makes clear that these publications have civilian applications, but also notes that they could used for the development of nuclear explosives. The same goes for nanodiamonds. The Agency has also been provided with information that SADAT  solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives in 2005 – some two years after the “halt order.” The implication, therefore, is that Fakhrizadeh is continuing his weapons work.

Iran claims that some of the Alleged Studies documents are based on open-source research and thereby not indicative of a weapons program. The assertion is irrelevant. If Iran opted to compartmentalize its nuclear weapons work like the United States did during the Manhattan Project, than Iranian researchers asked to do certain computations – or design certain components for say a shock implosion system – probably had absolutely no idea that they were contributing to a clandestine weapons program.  In fact, like in the United States, the extreme secrecy could have been one of the reasons for the very slow pace of Iran’s nuclear development. (I suspect it is.) Moreover, if you are concerned that a leak will lead to an American led bombing campaign, I presume you would want to keep the number of people in the know about the scope of the weapons project to an absolute minimum. Thus, I suspect that even certain AMAD Plan employed researchers working on issues related to nuclear weapons were unaware of the work being done on other projects documented in the Alleged Studies documentation. (And, in a Catch-22, if Iranian professors/grad students all of a sudden stopped publishing on these issues, than some in the IC might take that as a sign of a weapons program. All of this is to say that Iran does suffer some unique problems related to its nuclear work that only transparency can resolve.)

The fact that Iranian scientists have published in international journals work that could be used to support a weapons program isn’t all that noteworthy. The more relevant question is how the work may have been used – and this leads one back to Fakhrizadeh. The evidence – while admittedly based on the Alleged Studies documents – suggests a highly compartmentalized weapons program that began in the 1980s. The military program’s link to Sharif University appears to have stemmed from the university’s unique position after the revolution and its retention of most of its physics faculty. Moreover, I think it would be unwise to assume that many people outside of a select number of high-level officials knew what Shahmoradi was really up to. Thus, in order to fully understand the program, Iran needs to be more forthright about the Alleged Studies, so that the international community can be assured that no weapons work is continuing. If Fakhrizadeh’s role in the program isn’t clarified, than questions about what he does all day will continue to be a source of considerable concern. I doubt he is playing solitaire all day. Sorry Jeffrey.

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[1] Farhad Khosrokhavar, “Iran’s New Scientific Community,” in Contemporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics ed. Ali Gheissari (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Farhad Khosrokhavar and M. Amin Ghaneirad, “Iran’s New Scientific Community,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June, 2006), pp. 253-267.