Unmasking Iran's "Research Institute"

The unveiling of the "Physics Research Center" involved in clandestine procurement for the benefit of Iran's nuclear program contributed to the sanctions imposed on Iran and to the significant decelerating of Iran's progress toward the bomb

The Arak heavy water production facility, Iran (Photo: AP)

Some 1,600 Telex messages intercepted by Western intelligence agencies between 1988 and 1994 opened a Pandora's Box on Iran's nuclear program. These intercepts led to vigorous intelligence gathering and analysis efforts on the part of the Western intelligence community, which revealed the existence of a secret Iranian program for the development of nuclear arms. The secret program had run parallel to the activities of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) which the Iranian regime attempted to present as legitimate activities "for peaceful purposes". The Telex messages were exchanged between the Physics Research Center (PHRC) in Tehran and various corporations in the west. The information was examined by technological departments of Western intelligence agencies and, having been decrypted and analyzed, provided a fairly accurate picture of the research center, its activities and organizational structure. For a while, the Western intelligence community wondered and argued whether PHRC was intended to serve as an organization charged with clandestine procurement for the Iranian nuclear program or as a research center to all intents and purposes – as it subsequently turned out to be. Anyway, owing to the center's clandestine nature and the fact that it was subordinated to the Iranian Ministry of Defense, it was obvious that the center's involvement in various nuclear aspects such as uranium enrichment were intended to serve a military nuclear program.

PHRC was exposed by the media for the first time in the fall of 1997, through the article "Iran's Nuclear Procurement Program: How Close to the Bomb?" by Andrew Koch and Jeanette Wolf, published in the US magazine Nonproliferation Review, but the issue of the 1,600 Telex messages was publicized as of February 2012 by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) headed by David Albright, a Washington-based institute specializing in issues associated with the worldwide proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, American journalist Gareth Porter, a well-known radical anti-war activists since the days of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, strongly objected to the estimate of ISIS and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding the PHRC issue which, according to Porter, had relied on the western intelligence agencies. Porter argued that the estimate had stemmed from an anti-Iranian motivation and that the interpretation of the intercepted Telex messages according to which PHRC was viewed as an Iranian organization involved in the development of nuclear arms was a "fundamental error". He also supported Iran's claims according to which the procurement activities of PHRC were all intended for academic-university purposes. Accordingly, Porter claimed that a major percentage of the items purchased by PHRC could be dual-use items intended for civilian applications. Nevertheless, when all of the items were evaluated as a whole, the outcome pointed to a military nuclear program. Evidently, "if it looks like a duck, swims, walks and flies like a duck and quacks like a duck – then it is probably a duck."

Dr. Sayyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh headed PHRC since it was formed in 1988 until it was consolidated in 1998. The center had emerged from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG) – an organization subordinated to the Iranian Ministry of Defense whose primary activity was the development of ballistic missiles. Later on, it was subordinated to the Education Research Institute (ERI) of the Ministry of Defense. The PHRC headquarters were located at the Lavizan-Shian suburb of northern Tehran, but Dr. Shahmoradi had offices at the Sharif University of Technology and at the Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, both located in Tehran.  Dr. Shahmoradi had become involved in the nuclear program as early as 1988, as a senior executive with SHIG. He was involved in the illegal purchasing of a mass spectrometer – a device designed to measure the isotopes in chemical elements that is particularly relevant to uranium enrichment, which had been included in the list of sensitive and restricted nuclear technologies. Apparently, Shahmoradi had to leave his position as head of PHRC as he had failed to deliver the goods or possibly because the regime in Tehran had suspected him of corruption. Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a senior officer of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and a professor of physics at the Guardians' Imam Hussein University was appointed as Shahmoradi's replacement.

The Sharif University of Technology was not only intended to provide a legitimate front to the procurement transactions of PHRC – it was an actual accomplice. A few of the Telex messages intercepted reflected the awareness and even actual involvement of Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the President of the Sharif University at the time (who subsequently served as the President of AEOI and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and now once again serves as the President of AEOI) in the procurement transactions of PHRC. The Sharif University of Technology, the Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, the Iranian Kala Naft oil company and possibly other Iranian organizations were intended to provide a legitimate front to those procurement transactions. Things deteriorated to an absurd situation as indicated by one of the Telex messages, dated September 15, 1990, in which PHRC approached a major Western-European company specializing in nuclear projects, with a request for a catalog regarding the activities in which the company specialized, including uranium enrichment facilities, nuclear reactor and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities (used in the separation of plutonium) – facilities that have nothing whatsoever to do with an academic institution such as the Sharif University.

Deciphering the Organizational Structure

The analysts of the Institute for Science and International Security determined the organizational structure of PHRC based on the current numbering method of the Telex messages sent by the center: one of the numerals in the serial number of each Telex message referred to the relevant department within the center that was associated with that message. The departments identified were #1 – nuclear physics and neutrons, and possibly arms development as well; #2 – uranium enrichment centrifuges; #3 – uranium enrichment using lasers; #4 – uranium conversion; #5 – geology and uranium exploration; #6 – health physics; #7 – metallurgy and workshop; #8 – heavy water; #9 – analytics laboratory; #10 – possibly the computer department; #20 – possibly the analysis department. Regarding department #1 – in 1995, Shahmoradi signed a contract with a Soviet nuclear arms development specialist who had been an employee of the nuclear arms program of the USSR until it was dissolved. Regarding department #2 in charge of centrifuges – the following procurement transactions that were typical of the project should be noted: a mass spectrometer; a machine for balancing centrifuge rotors, acquired in early 1991 from the Karl Schenck Company of Germany (it should be noted that AEOI also purchased two balancing machines, a vertical one and a horizontal one, from the Schenck Company. These machines were used at the Natanz facility workshop); efforts toward the acquisition of centrifuge parts, such as tens of thousands of magnets possessing the characteristics of the upper bearing used in the Pakistani models P1 or P2 centrifuges; hysteresis motors; needle bearings and so forth. Regarding department #10 – around early 1992, the DEC Company of France, a subsidiary of the Digital Company of the USA, sold PHRC a VAX minicomputer. The Sharif University and the Amir Kabir Polytechnic University had been named as end users in order to bypass the US export control regulations.

About 50 Telex messages sent between July 1990 and October 1991 referred to the purchasing of technical literature regarding the various nuclear activities and the nuclear fuel cycle in particular. One of the Telex messages referred to a shaped charge that could be applied to the development of nuclear arms. The Telex messages referred to orders placed by department #70, probably the designation of the technical library of PHRC. Admittedly, numerous Telex messages stated that department #70 was affiliated to the Sharif University, but some of them mentioned Shahmoradi. In one of those Telex messages, department #70 approached a German company with a request for a catalog of a certain device, and the mailing address provided for that catalog was Post Office Box 16765-1831 in Tehran – the post office box of PHRC. Moreover, in the Telex messages referring to the purchase of a VAX minicomputer through the DEC Company of France, department #70 was described as affiliated to the Sharif University, and Shahmoradi was named as the head of the research department at the Amir Kabir Polytechnic University. Apparently, any library of any nuclear research institute around the world would have been proud to own the technical literature on the various nuclear activities in which department #70 had shown interest.

Apparently, IAEA learned of the existence of PHRC for the first time in 2003. In response to IAEA's demand to uncover PHRC to the Agency, Iran informed IAEA that the center had been established to develop "preparedness to combat and neutralization of casualties due to nuclear attacks and accidents [nuclear defense] and also support and provide scientific advice and services to the Ministry of Defense," but that it did not contain any nuclear materials. The Iranians further alleged that the procurement transactions in which PHRC was involved were made for the Sharif University of Technology and other organizations in Iran, and that the center only assisted in the execution of those transactions. Additionally, Shahmoradi assisted various departments and laboratories at the Sharif University through procurement efforts involving scientific instrumentation in his capacity as a professor of that university. Iran went as far as stating that in 1998, the function of PHRC had been changed to "Biological Research Center." However, the aforementioned Telex messages presented just the opposite picture: PHRC was acquiring, among other things, equipment items associated with uranium enrichment centrifuges and with nuclear weaponization.

Ironically, instruments intended for department #6 (health physics/radiation safety – a legitimate nuclear activity) led to the downfall of the PHRC HQ at the Lavizan-Shian suburb. Between 1993 and 1994, two Whole Body Counters (WBC), trailer-mounted devices designed to measure radiation, were purchased from the Canberra-Packard Company of the USA and installed in Iran. Admittedly, the Sharif University had been named as the end user for this transaction, but at least one of the devices was installed at the PHRC HQ in the Lavizan-Shian suburb. In 2003, IAEA learned about the presence of a WBC device at the Lavizan-Shian facility – a fact that raised suspicions regarding the possibility of nuclear activity at that facility, contrary to the Iranian allegations according to which the facility was being used for biological research. Consequently, IAEA demanded that Iran allow IAEA inspectors to inspect the facility and collect soil samples. Meanwhile, in early 2004, Iran completely razed the soil surface at the facility and demolished the numerous buildings it had contained. So, when in June 2004 Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to collect soil samples at the facility, they were unable to find any traces of radioactive materials. Apparently, the Iranians had managed to eliminate any indication of nuclear activity conducted at the facility in the past. The "explanation" provided by the Iranian authorities to IAEA regarding the razing of the facility was highly original: according to the Iranians, the ownership of the Lavizan-Shian property was disputed between the Ministry of Defense and the Municipality of Tehran, and as a court sentence ruled in favor of the Municipality, the Ministry of Defense had the property returned to it, and the recipient decided to level it.

When the Iranians realized that PHRC had been exposed, they changed the center's name to the Institute of Applied Physics (IAP), and its functions were defined, from that point until the end of 2003, in the context of a program headed by Dr. Fakhrizadeh and designated AMAD. However, pursuant to the occupation of Iraq by the USA in 2003, the Iranian leadership decided to discontinue the AMAD program and consequently Dr. Fakhrizadeh had the weaponization effort transferred to the Malek Ashtar University of Technology in Tehran, an institute associated with the Ministry of Defense. For the same purpose he also established the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, which was relocated to a new facility. The designation of that organization in Farsi was SPND, and details about it were reported in the press for the first time in 2011, by members of the Iranian opposition in the USA. Anyway, IAEA realized that Fakhrizadeh is a key personality in Iran's military nuclear effort, and owing to his extensive activity he was described by the media as "The Father of Iran's Nuclear Bomb". Evidently, all of IAEA's demands to question Fakhrizadeh were rejected by the Iranian authorities.

In February 2003, Iran allowed the Director General of IAEA to visit the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, after IAEA had learned of its existence in 2002 from satellite surveillance images provided by the US intelligence community. The Iranians 'shuffled their feet' with regard to the subsequent cooperation with IAEA, however, only cooperating reluctantly and piecemeal. For this reason, to a considerable extent, the unmasking of PHRC was 'the straw that broke the camel's back'. In retrospect, it definitely contributed to the decision by the UN and the western countries to impose sanctions on Iran in the previous decade, and hence to the significant decelerating of Iran's progress toward the bomb. 

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Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst

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