What Lies? Beneath the Mysterious History of an Iranian Nuclear Site

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On the northwestern edge of Tehran, a wooded hill rises abruptly out of the gray low-rise cityscape. The roads meandering to the top are lined with grills and picnic tables, and from the north slope it was once possible to peer through the trees and make out where the of the Physics Research Center used to stand. The vacant lot looked just like it did on the satellite photos.

The day I visited, in June 2004,  it was also possible to wind back down the hill and pitch up at the site itself, still surrounded by a 20-foot wall. Inspectors for the IAEA had not been there yet but Iranian demolition crews certainly had: All the topsoil had been trucked away, along with every building except a guard shack. The man inside it came out and lied to us.

“It was a municipal sports complex,” he said, speaking without losing the ash on his cigarette. “It wasn’t big enough so they demolished it. And they want to build a bigger one.”

But there are lies and there are lies. And as the Iranians apparently prepare to sign a pact promising to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate suspected military components of its nuclear program, the question is how in heaven’s name the mullahs will manage to save face for their fibs of the past. A case in point is embedded in the mysterious history of that vacant lot at the base of Lavizan Park – a trapezoid of ground that once held nearly as much interest to U.N. inspectors as the Parchin military base the IAEA is keen to revisit now, in search of evidence of nuclear triggering experiments.

The Physics Research Center likely was the Islamic Republic’s main facility for developing a nuclear program in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The complex was controlled by the defense ministry, and devoted to “preparedness to combat and neutralization of casualties due to nuclear attacks,” Iranian officials told the IAEA. But the site was razed by the time the U.N. inspectors were allowed to visit and no trace of radioactivity was found.

There was, however, a paper trail, one recently brought to light by the well-connected researchers at the Institute for Science and International Security, the nonprofit nuclear watchdog founded by the physicist David Albright. The trail takes the form of telexes – those typewritten cables that were how people communicated in writing across international borders before the days of e-mail or even faxes. ISIS got its hands on 1,600 of the documents, including several that implicate none other than Iran’s current Foreign Minister in a clandestine effort to acquire nuclear equipment.

Ali Akbar Salehi was head of Tehran’s Sharif University when that institution of higher learning pretended to be the destination for nuclear equipment deemed “dual-use” because it could be used either for civilian or military purposes. Salehi turns up on the telexes meant to assure a foreign supplier that full-body counters, meant to detect traces of radiation on workers as they leave a job site, were destined not for the Ministry of Defense lab at Lazivan – where they indeed ended up – but for the university, according to the ISIS trove.

Which might present a certain awkwardness around the table in Baghdad, where Salehi or his colleagues will gather Wednesday with representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany (known as the P5+ 1). The talks are widely described as promising because Iran and the world powers have staked out common ground based on an aphorism: Since Islam proscribes weapons of mass destruction, Iran has nothing to hide, and let’s go from there. Bring on the inspectors!

It’s a winning diplomatic formula because it lets everyone save face. If all concerned can agree on a pleasant reality — there’s actually a sports complex on the lot below Lavizan Park today — why even examine the past? The answer: Because that’s what inspectors do.  And the Iranians must know that not only the devil resides in the details, so does the prospect of international embarrassment. So what to do? If past is prologue, the Iranians will happily make up something new.

“Behind the scenes, what they say privately to some of the questions Albright raises or to the IAEA, is one thing,” says Abbas Milani, head of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. “How they approach it publicly is quite another thing. And in public what they have been saying for some time now is: every bit of evidence the West has has been concocted by the Americans and the Israelis. There is no there there. ‘We have never been found to be in breach [of the Non-Proliferation Treaty]. We have never been found to have done anything wrong, and they keep picking on us.’ I think their public posture has to be that these are all fabrications.”

If that sounds incredible, bear in mind that credibility within Iran’s borders is dictated by state media, the only kind the Islamic Republic now permits. As long as internal consistency is maintained – stick to your story – the risk of public humiliation simply does not exist, because neither do the tell-tale telexes. “If there’s one thing the mullahs are good at, it’s trying to spin a story,” says Abbas. “That’s what they’ve done for 1300 years.”

For Abbas, who has advised the last two U.S. administrations on Iran policy, the deeper question is whether current optimism over the talks is, as he put it, “too optimistic.” He doubts that Iran’s recalcitrant Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will approve a deal that lets the next round of sanctions against Iran go forward as planned in late June, something Washington has said must happen.  The current sanctions have no doubt hit Tehran very hard, Abbas says, but he suspects that the huge drop in the value of its currency, the rial, is driven by Iran’s own government, which is hoarding dollars and euros so it has the cash on hand for when the July sanctions take hold.

“The regime has the money,” he says. “They are not sure of the security of their own investment! That’s the only way I can understand this kind of a fall [in the rial]. The Iranian middle class doesn’t have the kind of money to bring about this kind of a fall.” The mullahs, Milani says, are “clearly trying to save some gold and save some currencies in kind of liquid forms so they can get what they need if the bigger sanctions come. All of these drastic changes are the beginnings of what might come in July.’’