December 3, 2020 | Insight

Fakhrizadeh Assassination Underscores Iran’s Refusal to Come Clean About Nuclear Weapons Activities

December 3, 2020 | Insight

Fakhrizadeh Assassination Underscores Iran’s Refusal to Come Clean About Nuclear Weapons Activities

The assassination last week of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh eliminated the leading source of institutional knowledge about the Tehran regime’s once-flourishing nuclear weapons program. His death is a stark reminder that the UN nuclear monitor, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), still has not learned the true extent and current status of the program Fakhrizadeh administered for more than two decades. The incoming U.S. administration should demand that Iran fully cooperate with the IAEA and disclose and halt its military nuclear activities as a prerequisite for sanctions relief.

The IAEA reported in 2011 that Fakhrizadeh, a physicist and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps brigadier general, headed Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Amad Plan, from the late 1990s until 2003. Fakhrizadeh had previously worked at the Physics Research Center and co-located Institute of Applied Physics, which from the late 1980s to the late 1990s conducted foundational research and procurement before Tehran streamlined the center’s efforts to focus on nuclear weapons production. After the formal suspension of the Amad Plan in 2003, Fakhrizadeh ran successor entities that assumed many of Amad’s responsibilities.

Under the Amad Plan, Fakhrizadeh oversaw a vast enterprise devoted to producing fissile material for the Islamic Republic’s five initially planned nuclear weapons, as well as weaponizing and testing the nuclear devices and integrating warheads onto a deliverable missile. Much of what is known about the Amad Plan came to light only after Israel’s 2018 seizure from a Tehran warehouse of a massive set of files detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons work through 2003 and what the regime intended the Amad Plan to become thereafter.

The files from the Tehran archive indicate that following revelations in 2002 of Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites and activities and the ensuing international scrutiny, Iranian officials sought to hide progress from IAEA inspectors while enabling further advances. They no doubt also sought to head off any knowledge of their activities by the United States or Israel, which they feared might confront the regime militarily.

According to archive documents translated by the Institute for Science and International Security, from August until September 2003, Iranian officials who were part of “Project 110” – the nuclear warhead development effort – held a series of meetings during which they decided to break the program into overt and covert parts.

The officials decided that projects with undeniable military applications would continue covertly at defense entities, while those with plausible civilian applications would be more openly dispersed to academic research centers and universities. The combined effort would maintain and pursue progress on three key capabilities: producing a testable nuclear device, integrating it onto a nuclear warhead, and fitting that warhead onto a Shahab-3 missile.

Fakhrizadeh himself authored a October 25, 2003, memorandum in which he explained how Iran would hide and disguise – but continue – its sensitive activities. Fakhrizadeh explained, “The general aim is to announce the closure of Project Amad” and maintain “special activities … under the title of scientific [know-how] development.”

Another document from the archive said covert projects would have a “secret structure and goals” and leave “no identifiable traces.” A key consideration was whether the activities could result in contamination of research sites via nuclear material. Meanwhile, for overt projects, officials “proposed to establish two university centers” and to draw on the existing Pardis Tehran Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT). The centers would “not be linked with [Project] 110,” but administrators would maintain deep coordination with those leading the military efforts.

In public, regime leaders told a very different story. On October 16, 2003, Hassan Rouhani, then-national security advisor and Iran’s current president, pledged to the IAEA that Iran would “provide the Agency, in the course of the following week, with a full disclosure of Iran’s past and present nuclear activities” and enact a “policy of full transparency.” Iran also committed in an agreement with Germany, Britain, and France to temporarily suspend enrichment and reprocessing efforts.

In the following years, Iran cooperated sporadically with the IAEA but also razed project sites and covered up evidence. The U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA struggled to accurately characterize Iran’s opaque ongoing activities. In 2007, the UN Security Council sanctioned Fakhrizadeh under Resolution 1747, and the United States imposed its own sanctions on him in 2008.

According to the IAEA, Fakhrizadeh nonetheless went on to head all entities that served as de facto successors of the Amad Plan. From 2005 to 2008, Fakhrizadeh led the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT). Next, he led the MUT from 2009 to 2010. Finally, he ran the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (also known as SPND, its Persian acronym) from its founding in 2011 until his death.

Periodically, documents leaked that showed Fakhrizadeh at the helm of the covert and overt nuclear programs’ secretive, ongoing efforts. A 2005 SADAT document showed Fakhrizadeh addressing 12 heads of various centers that Iran maintained. A 2008 IAEA briefing discussed how Fakhrizadeh advised the centers on how to communicate safely, in particular by not using names. Allegedly, the scientist was also present at North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test.

SPND, where Fakhrizadeh served until last week, maintained Tehran’s latent capability to build nuclear weapons. The Obama administration sanctioned SPND in 2014, just prior to concluding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Obama State Department described SPND as an entity that provided “support to illicit Iranian nuclear activities.” It noted that Fakhrizadeh “for many years has managed activities useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that “SPND took over some of the activities related to Iran’s undeclared nuclear program.”

While negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, the Obama administration insisted Iran would have to come clean about its nuclear weapons program before any agreement took effect. Secretary of State John Kerry told PBS NewsHour, “If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.” In the end, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out such intrusiveness, and President Barack Obama settled for Iran’s agreement to a superficial evaluation by the IAEA. SPND’s work continued. Following the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions, Washington broadened designations to include several SPND-affiliated entities and officials. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the United States would have removed sanctions against both Fakhrizadeh and SPND in 2023.

Fakhrizadeh’s demise is felt keenly by Iran’s atomic establishment, which previously lost several leading figures in a similar manner. However, his departure will not stymie onward progress. The president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Science the day after Fakhrizadeh’s death, “An efficient system has been established which is able to pursue the envisioned projects without any hindrance.” In other words, Fakhrizadeh passed down all the know-how needed to maintain and unite Iran’s dispersed nuclear weapons projects as one.

The IAEA has never determined which activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device continue today or the level of their progression since 2003. As the next U.S. presidential administration assumes power, it should predicate any relief from sanctions on the full disclosure and cessation of Iran’s military nuclear activities. If Tehran conclusively showed that its nuclear program was peaceful in nature, its regional adversaries might not consider scientists such as Fakhrizadeh to be military targets.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Iran Program. For more analysis from Andrea, CMPP, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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