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.
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.
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.
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