On the anniversary of the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and on the eve of the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, a former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency (2011-2013), confirmed that Fakhrizadeh was active in a program to build nuclear weapons. This is the first such admission from a government official in the history of the Islamic Republic.
Eighteen years ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched its first investigations into possible Iran’s nuclear program. The doubts and questions have lingered ever since. The Islamic Republic has constantly maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, in deference to a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini that banned the production, stockpiling and using of nuclear weapons. Of course, in Shia tradition, anybody whose chosen “source of emulation” is not Khamenei is not obligated to follow his fatwas.
In 2003, then-IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei visited the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility to assess the status of Iran’s nuclear program. He then met with President Mohammad Khatami, and was astonished by Khatami’s knowledge of very technical aspects of uranium enrichment. This made him suspicious: “President Khatami, a cleric by training, had just referred to a means of cold-testing a centrifuge without using nuclear material. His point was that Iran had not violated any nuclear reporting requirements. But why would Khatami know about testing with inert gas? I wondered,” wrote ElBaradei in his book Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times.
During the same visit to Iran, ElBaradei also met with Khatami’s predecessor Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then chairman of the Guardian Council. In his nuclear memoir, ElBaradei wrote that Hashemi Rafsanjani had told him: “I saw so many of our people killed with chemical weapons during Iran-Iraq war. I couldn’t be advocating dialogue among civilizations and at the same time developing nuclear weapons.”
Later, ElBaradei would reflect: “I was told by a number of people, including President Mubarak of Egypt, that according to Shiite theology it is sometimes acceptable to deceive for the right cause. The concept is called taqqiya [dissimulation], meaning to protect oneself or those under one’s care from harm. I made it clear to our Iranian counterpart that regardless of the origins of this behavior, their denials and on-ongoing cover-ups had deeply hurt their credibility with the international community. From the outset they had dug a hole that would undermine their own diplomatic endeavors, what I referred to as starting out with a confidence deficit.”
The Mastermind Behind the Nuclear Weapons Project
Now, close to two decades after ElBaradei raised concerns about a “confidence deficit”, ex-Atomic Energy Agency chief Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani has become the latest Iranian official to evidence why such a deficit exists. Abbasi-Davani gave an interview with state newspaper Iran in which he openly stated that not only had Mohsen Fakhrizadeh spearheaded efforts to build a nuclear weapon, but others with the same “mindset and worldview” as he were involved in Iran’s nuclear program today.
“It is quite clear that our restraint about nuclear weapons was based on the explicit fatwa by the exalted Supreme Leader,” Abbasi-Davani said. “But Fakhrizadeh created the system, and his motive was not only defending our country – because our country supports the [anti-Israel] Resistance Front. When you get into these issues, the Zionists become sensitive. And it wasn’t only Mr. Fakhrizadeh. There are others at the managerial level of our organization who have the same characteristics.”
Fakhrizadeh was assassinated on the afternoon of November 27 in a small town outside Tehran. He had been sanctioned since March 2007 by UN Security Council Resolution 1747. In April 2018, after Mossad agents stole a trove of documents from inside Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly identified Fakhrizadeh as the key figure in Iran’s nuclear program, Amad: an ostensibly military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA had opened a case into the “possible military dimensions ([PMDs)” of Iran’s nuclear program, which included tens of questionnaires to cover its every aspect. Because of Fakhrizadeh’s known – if ill-defined – role in Iran’s nuclear program, IAEA inspectors had long asked to interview him. But Iranian officials never permitted it.
The PMDs case was eventually closed inconclusively in 2015, in the final days of JCPOA negotiations. This came partly due to pressure from US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s then-deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi – who had consulted with Fakhrizadeh himself on the nuclear issue.
Iran Had Nearly Mastered All Technical Challenges
Three years after the JCPOA, the stolen documents were presented by Netanyahu in a bid to show the world that the Islamic Republic was, after all, seeking to build nuclear weapons. It has been claimed that one of the reasons President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the US from the JCPOA was that he was shown one document containing Fakhrizadeh’s statements about the necessity of making weapons.
Some of the documents have since been published, in the 2021 book Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons. They IAEA inspectors had detected unmistakable signs that Iran had already mastered nearly all the technical challenges of building a weapon and needed only a reliable source of fissile fuel: either enriched uranium or plutonium. This is not believed to have reached the production phase. According to both this book and the IAEA’s PMDs probe, the Islamic Republic halted the program in 2003, shortly before the US invasion of Iraq. Whether or not it resumed it later was never conclusively established.
In his interview, Abbasi-Davani not only confirmed Fakhrizadeh’s motive was to make a nuclear weapon, but to use the bomb for to further the aims of “resistance” groups: those of the Islamic Republic, Assad’s Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. This was a shocking revelation.
Talks on reviving the JCPOA have resumed in the Austrian capital today. But these revelations, by the ex-head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, no less, underscore the need for much stricter supervision of states that do not feel bound by international conventions such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. One such state is Iran, which not only has a track record of nuclear cover-ups but considers lying a religious duty if convenient.