A look at Iran's nuclear weapons projects part 1

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The first revelations of illicit Iranian nuclear activities made by the Iranian resistance, however, came in June 1991. A more thorough investigation reveals that nuclear weapons acquisition was on the regime's agenda since the early years after the 1979 revolution and formed a pillar of Khomeini’s strategic and fundamentalist doctrine for regime survival and expansion.

All decisions on nuclear activities have always been made at the highest levels. The NCRI’s in-depth research has also established that the regime’s Revolutionary Guards have systematically played a strategic role in the multi-faceted campaign to obtain nuclear weapons.

Below is first part of an NCRI background report on the regime’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons in the three decades of its rule.

 

Mullahs’ Regime and Nuclear Bomb

THE BEGINNING - FROM 1979 TO 1988

After the Shah’s fall in 1979, the activities of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) were suspended during Mehdi Bazargan’s provisional government. The government assessment was that it did not need atomic energy due to Iran's extensive oil and gas resources.

In 1981, the mullahs’ regime made a decision to chart a path to obtain nuclear weapons and the associated technology. Mohammad Hossein Beheshti (one of the closest clerical confidants of Khomeini) told the country's nuclear research managers in 1981 that Iran’s policy is to obtain a nuclear weapon.

To advance its plan, the regime embarked on two sets of activities. On the one hand, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) added nuclear military research to its agenda and on the other hand the AEOI was re-activated in a dual-track approach.

1. In 1983, the IRGC founded the Unit for Special Nuclear Research in the IRGC’s central research complex. This special and clandestine center was located in the northern quarters of Tehran, near Vanak Square, and employed top nuclear experts from various universities.

2. In 1983, Parliament Speaker Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani summoned previously-suspended AEOI experts and invited them to resume their activities at the nuclear agency.

IRGC’s Serious Attempts at Gaining a Nuclear Bomb

In late 1986 and early 1987, the IRGC carried out a series of attacks against Iraq, code-named Karbala 4 and Karbala 5, with the goal of capturing Basra, but they were heavily defeated.

Following this defeat, during a speech in 1987, Khomeini addressed high ranking officials of the AEOI and the IRGC and emphasized the necessity of possessing a nuclear bomb.

After Khomeini’s speech, Mohsen Rezaii, the then Commander of the IRGC, made it his personal responsibility to pursue nuclear weapons development. Some of the activities that he carried out along this line were as follows:

1. The IRGC’s research center for acquiring the scientific expertise and technology for developing nuclear weapons established active communications with Russia and Pakistan and conducted negotiations and collaborations with both countries.

2. Since 1987, one of the IRGC’s nuclear research centers under the cover of “IRGC’s Educational Center for Marine Technical Cadres” was activated. This center was located near Lavizan section of Tehran and had active nuclear relations with Russia and Pakistan.

3. Relations with Abdul Qadeer Khan (Father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons): In 1987, three IRGC officials met Abdul Qadeer Khan in Tehran on at least two occasions. At the time, the main mission of the IRGC’s research center was research in the area of nuclear weapons. The meetings between IRGC commanders and Abdul Qadeer Khan were coordinated by Reza Amrollahi, the then head of AEOI .

4. Rezaii, IRGC head at the time, personally met with university physics professors in 1987 and invited them to collaborate in nuclear research with the IRGC. The recruited professors began work at the “IRGC’s Educational Center for Marine Technical Cadres” in Lavizan.

EXPANSION OF NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES - 1988 TO 1993

1. Ceasefire’s “Chalice of Poison” and the Necessity of Attaining Atomic Bomb

On July 16, 1988, two days before announcing the ceasefire in the war with Iraq, Khomeini wrote a letter explaining the necessity of the ceasefire. In that letter he emphasized that the military commanders had said: “If we had 350 brigades, 2,500 tanks, 3,000 artillery, 300 fighter planes, and 300 helicopters as well as the capability to build a significant amount of laser and nuclear weapons—which were needed for the war at the time—then, God willing, we can conduct offensive operations.”

2. Strategy of Preventive Defense

After Khomeini’s death, in 1989 the regime approved the strategy of preventive defense. The strategy was to deal with the threat that “the enemies of the Islamic republic and its Islamic ideology would, at some point, resort to military threat or attack, in order to prevent the spread of this country’s influence.” The strategy, which continues to this day, is based on the following three pillars:

• Capability to tolerate heavy losses in long-term battles;

• Having an enormous military arsenal containing mid-range and long-range missiles to remedy the weaknesses in air operations; and

• A nuclear arsenal to stop major powers including the United States.

The mullahs’ Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the regime’s military commanders believed that: “The central axis of containment in this strategy is possessing nuclear weapons that would prevent attacks, and Iran’s national defense without having nuclear power will not have much value.”

3. Mo’allem Kelayeh Project

Since 1989, the IRGC had a uranium enrichment project called “Alamoot Plan” that was carried out in Mo’allem Kelayeh.  This project was known as Mo’allem Kelayeh Project. It was carried out in Qazvin’s Alamoot region in the Khoshkchal area and, in order to keep it secret even from the local residents, the IRGC moved the local residents to other areas.

The PMOI exposed this enrichment project in June 1991, and in 1992, the IAEA asked the regime for an explanation.  The regime claimed there was no serious project being carried out at that location. It was not until 2003 that the site was visited by the IAEA which confirmed that uranium had been enriched there. Once the regime’s deception was revealed, in its letter of October 2003 it was forced to admit that from 1998 to 2003 it was enriching uranium at that site.

4. Rafsanjani’s Strategy for IRGC to Achieve Nuclear Bomb

In a report to Rafsanjani in 1991, the IRGC’s special nuclear unit described the difficulty in achieving nuclear weapons as lack of cooperation by foreign countries in making key facilities and techniques available for building nuclear weapons.

Subsequently, Rafsanjani had a joint meeting with the IRGC’s special nuclear unit and the AEOI. At that meeting the following strategy was formulated for attaining nuclear weapons:

1. To access the nuclear facilities and technology, we must activate various resources in various countries and engage in smuggling and secret deals to gain the needed technology;

2. Trusted Iranian engineers and experts should be sent abroad under various covers to spy and gain access to such technology; and

3. We must take maximum advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union to bring into service special expertise and services .

5. Exposing the Regime’s Secret Nuclear Decisions and Activities

In June 1991, Mr. Mohammad Mohaddessin, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), at a press conference in the U.S. exposed Rafsanjani’s strategy and the regime’s specific activities at the time for accessing nuclear weapons, the regime’s allocated budget for this purpose, and the relations with other countries including with China and Pakistan. This press conference received widespread coverage and the regime’s officials and media were forced to react to it .

6. Attempt to Purchase Warheads from Kazakhstan

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime saw a rare opportunity and made serious attempts at buying nuclear warheads from ex-Soviet states. The most serious attempt was made in buying nuclear warheads from Kazakhistan.

In 1992 the PMOI learnt that the regime was about to purchase three nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan and it was determined that the purchase of these warheads was agreed upon during a visit to Iran in 1992 by Kazakhstan’s Transportation Minister Mr. Aishin Kari and it was agreed upon that Iran would pay for them in cash.

The Iranian Resistance exposed the purchase. On October 12 1992, the Washington Post wrote: “Iran has been conducting secret negotiations to buy nuclear warheads from the cash-hungry former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan and by one account has closed the deal. ... The Bush administration was warned last week by an exiled Iranian dissident leader whose information has proved accurate in the past. His Iraq-based organization, the People's Mujaheddin, had learned that Iran has signed the agreement and paid for the warheads, but that delivery had not yet taken place.”

Despite the plan’s exposure, the regime continued to finalize the deal and in December 1992, Akbar Torkan, the regime’s Minister of Transportation, and Amrollahi, the head of the AEOI, travelled to Kazakhstan to conclude the agreement that was reached with Minister Kari a few months earlier and take delivery of the bombs. The Kazakh officials stated that following the agreement’s exposure by the PMOI, they had been facing international pressure, and in particular because of pressure by Russian President Boris Yeltsin they could not carry out the agreement.

A few years later, Mr. Bolat Nurgaliyev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the U.S., confirmed the existence of that agreement. In that regard, the Washington Times on November 2, 1996 wrote: “The Kazakh ambassador to the United States says that Iran attempted to buy unidentified materials from a major Soviet nuclear facility in his country but that the deal was stopped in 1992 as crates sat awaiting shipment. … Mr. Nurgaliyev said that in 1992, as a newly independent Kazakhstan sought to deal with the tremendous nuclear arsenal on its soil, Iranian representatives made contact with the Ust-Kamenogorsk facility and sought certain 'things.'”

The Washington Times further reported that an intelligence report had said “Iranian officials actually visited the plant seeking HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium] for the Islamic country's own nuclear weapons program.”

Thus the Iranian opposition had by its timely revelation prevented the Iranian regime from obtaining three nuclear warheads.

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[1] Les Gardiens de la Révolution, [Guardians of the Revolution], page 247

[2] Les Gardiens de la Révolution, [Guardians of the Revolution] , page 317 – Khomeini’s handwritten text

[3] Les Gardiens de la Révolution, [Guardians of the Revolution] , page 246

[4] Mullahs’ regime reaction to that exposé collected in Chronicles of Iran’s nuclear confrontation, Etemaad Daily N0. 192, September 26, 2006.  

To be continued…