An Iranian Oppenheimer? The Mystery Man Behind Tehran's Secret Nuclear Program

The lynchpin at the center of Iran's nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakrizadeh has drawn comparisons to both Robert Oppenheimer and Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan. U.N. inspectors would love to meet the elusive scientist. Others want him dead.

The heavy water facility in Arak, Iran (Wikipedia)
The heavy water facility in Arak, Iran (Wikipedia)
Natalie Nougayrède<

TEHRAN He is the mysterious man behind Iran's nuclear program, the invisible "boss' of the military program at the heart of current Middle East tensions. His name is Mohsen Fakrizadeh, and he's 50 years old. For the past 10 years, this specialist in nuclear physics, who is also a general of a brigade of Pasdarans, the elite branch of the regime's Revolutionary Guard, has overseen all of the different organizations charged with developing a nuclear warhead for Iran.

It is enough to say that his whole existence is clouded in extreme secrecy, since the Iranian government ferociously denies that the program he runs even exists.

As the lynchpin in the most sensitive part of the nuclear program, Mohsen Fakrizadeh is also high on the list of "targets' for the Mossad, Israel's spy agency, which has been trying for several years to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, and is suspected of assassinating several its top scientists. In 1981, Israel led a similar campaign against Saddam Hussein's nuclear program in Iraq.

What might Fakrizadeh think about the current crisis, and the speculations about a possible military intervention against Iran's nuclear program? One Western expert describes Fakrizadeh as "cut off from the outside world, holed up in his base and fed on the pride of standing up to the Great Satan (the United States)." Other insiders stress that, though he is under constant surveillance, he is both the discrete scientific hero and prisoner of the increasingly militarized Iranian system.

Fakrizadeh has been the uncatchable spider at the center of the web of the Iranian nuclear program. And nobody has tried harder to meet him than Olli Heinonen, the man who headed the international nuclear inspections in Iran between 2003 and 2010. From Harvard, where he now works, the Finnish expert explained by telephone that "having access to the head of the program is a must," if you really want to shed light on Iran's work.

For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been asking, in vain, to speak with Fakrizadeh. Heinonen says he would be very surprised if the current IAEA delegation, which was in Iran from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, managed to make any progress on this front. "Especially since the regime has started to accuse the IAEA of exposing scientists to possible assassination attempts by mentioning them in their reports."

Heinonen thought he was finally going to meet the mysterious scientist in September 2008, when the head of the non-secret part of the Iranian nuclear program announced that he'd arranged an interview. But in the end, someone in Iran's galaxy of power decided that the one-who-knows-too-much had to stay out of reach.

In his former office, nicknamed "orchid" for the street in Tehran on which it was located, Fakrizadeh worked on "project 111," centered around the construction of a nuclear warhead, from 2000 to 2003. The following year Iran was forced to disperse the teams of scientists working on the project to different universities and institutes, which would serve as cover for the program. It was around that time that a short video, around three minutes long, depicting a nuclear explosion set to the music from Chariots of Fire was distributed among Iran's political elite as a sort of promotional video.

Procurement genius

Fakrizadeh's importance contrasts with the official silence that surrounds him. It is reminiscent of the absolute secrecy that surrounded Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the American-government sponsored Manhattan Project, which produced the first-ever atomic bomb in the New Mexican desert in the 1940s.

We know something about Oppenheimer's state of mind when, the day after Hiroshima, he said to President Harry Truman: "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands." Naturally, we know virtually nothing about Mr. Fakrizadeh's thoughts, except that he apparently doesn't want to see his project shuttered.

In contrast to Oppenheimer, Fakrizadeh is not described as a scientific genius. He is not known to have ever published any important papers. Above all, he is believed to be a good manager, commanding a team of roughly 600 experts who are spread out in a dozen different locations.

According to Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on the Iranian nuclear program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, there is another, more relevant comparison. "Mohsen Fakrizadeh could be called the Iranian A.Q. Khan," he says, in reference to the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, the engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan. Fitzpatrick notes that like his Pakistani counterpart, Fakrizadeh has been implicated not only in the technological development of the bomb, but also in the procurement abroad of the materials necessary to build it.

A.Q. Khan began his career by stealing centrifuges from the Dutch company Urenco in the 1970s. Iran was a major client of the nuclear black market that he established in the 1980s. Might the two men have met at one point? Did Fakrizadeh envy Khan's glory? After Pakistan's nuclear test in 1998, Khan was celebrated as a national hero, although this euphoria was brutally crushed by his televised "admissions' and subsequent house arrest after his sales of nuclear material abroad were uncovered in 2003. One of the major differences between the two men is that, at least at this point, there has been no indication that Fakrizadeh has tried to get rich by selling his know-how abroad.

What the two men clearly do have in common is that they both are part of a political context where strategic decisions are totally out of their control. Fakrizadeh, who has been the target of specific sanctions by the United Nations since 2007, finds himself the incarnation of a movement in Iranian society that is undoubtedly beyond his control, and could easily crush him.

There has never been a photo, at least of verifiable authenticity, of Mohsen Fakrizadeh. So you have to imagine him: a fleeting silhouette swallowed up in the pale, modern buildings at the University of Malek-Ashtar, in Tehran, one of the most prestigious nuclear research centers under the military's aegis. Or perhaps, we can see his shadow sneaking, even more discretely, into a complex on the other side of the street, called Mojdeh. In 2011, experts say, this became his brand new headquarters.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Wikipedia

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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