When the United States and allies struck a landmark nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, a key selling point was that it blocks Iran’s paths to building an atomic bomb. But U.S. President Donald Trump has denounced the deal, and in May 2018 he followed through on a campaign promise to pull the United States out. His administration argues the agreement allows Iran to bide its time, preserving illicit nuclear know-how until provisions of the deal sunset. “What you have,” asserts a senior administration official, is “the perfect storm for proliferation breakout.”
Hoping to derail that ambition, the departments of state and the treasury on 22 March announced sanctions on 31 entities and individuals linked to a military institute—known as the Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, or SPND—that U.S. officials allege is maintaining nuclear weapons expertise under the guise of civilian R&D. The sanctions restrict opportunities for the targeted scientists to conduct research abroad and participate in international conferences, and they would penalize any U.S. person or foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a “significant transaction.” And they are a shot across the bow of all scientists in Iran contemplating working with SPND. “Any association, they should understand, with SPND or its subordinate groups makes them radioactive,” the administration official says.
The list of researchers and institutes subject to the new sanctions appears to have been compiled, in part, from a trove of materials—some 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs—on Iran’s nuclear efforts up until 2003 that Israel says its spies spirited out of Tehran. The archive, seized during a daring nighttime heist in January 2018, is said to be from the now-defunct program, code-named Amad, to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has dismissed the documents as forgeries. But, “They do appear to be authentic,” says Andrea Stricker, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a nuclear nonproliferation think tank in Washington, D.C., that has analyzed some of the documents. Most of the documents are in Farsi and are consistent with information gleaned from other sources. The archive “fills in missing pieces of the puzzle” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, she says.
Among the archive’s revelations are that Iran intended to create a small arsenal of five 10-kiloton nuclear weapons, aimed to build an underground facility to manufacture components of uranium cores for warheads, and was scouting sites to conduct underground nuclear tests. Iran halted Amad in 2003, after dissidents outed a clandestine uranium enrichment facility.
Israel has shared the archive in batches with the United States and with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which is responsible for verifying and monitoring Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Analysts say IAEA has had the complete archive for only a few months and is now vetting it—a process expected to take many more months. (An agency spokesperson declined to comment.) The U.S. government is now “leveraging information from that archive,” the administration official says. “Some of the names [on the sanctions list] … came to our attention through that.”
A common thread for the designated scientists and entities is an alleged link to SPND. The institute was founded in 2011 by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a physicist at Imam Hussein University in Tehran who Western intelligence agencies say orchestrated Iran’s nuclear bomb effort. Iran refused IAEA access to Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi when, a few years ago, the agency was reviewing the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. IAEA’s final report in 2015 concluded that activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive” continued in Iran as late as 2009.
Iran says it has no desire to become a nuclear weapons state; it points to a 2003 fatwa from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei proscribing nukes. U.S. officials, however, insist Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi and SPND are keeping the flame alive. “This is a way for them to keep the gang together, as it were” the administration official says. “It’s as if some evil version of Robert Oppenheimer had been kept in charge of keeping the Manhattan Project crew together for years afterwards … in order to be able to be called upon to get back to their original line of work.”
The blacklisted entities and scientists are all engaged in civilian R&D. For instance, Pulse Niru, a company in Tehran, specializes in condensed energy physics, including nuclear fusion and particle accelerators. What raised a red flag is its work on pulsed power generators. Civilian applications include probing materials under extreme conditions and developing inertial confinement fusion. But short pulses with enormous power can also be used to simulate radiation bursts of nuclear blasts. Pulse Niru “procures advanced technologies from China, Russia, and other foreign suppliers,” the administration official says. “We are pursuing those actors just as aggressively as the Iranian defense organizations they support.” Pulse Niru did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. government has taken pains not to tar all Iranian applied R&D. For instance, the U.S. official noted that SPND is “completely separate from Iran’s civil nuclear program,” which the U.S. is not targeting with sanctions.
Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran remains in compliance, according to IAEA. Iran “is implementing its nuclear-related commitments,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated in January. But observers note that SPND’s tentacles reach into Iranian academia. For example, SPND has a long association with the nearby Malek-Ashtar University of Technology in Tehran.
“Iran’s next generation of scientists has two paths: They can use their skills pursuing noble work outside of the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] realm, or they can work for Iranian proliferation organizations and risk being sanctioned,” a Department of State fact sheet says. “That certainly sends a chilling signal,” Stricker says.