Trump administration levels charges as Treasury and State Departments sanction more than two dozen Iranian officials
Iran’s Ministry of Defense unit responsible for developing nuclear weapons is based in Tehran.PHOTO: ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/SHUTTERSTOCK
By Ian Talley
Updated March 22, 2019 10:32 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON—Iran’s Ministry of Defense unit responsible for developing nuclear weapons is poised to restart work and is using front companies to buy materials from Russia and China that could be used to reactivate its banned bomb program, U.S. officials alleged Friday.
The Trump administration leveled the charges as the Treasury and State Departments sanctioned more than two dozen Iranian officials, scientists and alleged front companies connected to the Tehran-based Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, or SPND, as it is known by its Farsi initials.
The sanctions and accompanying revelations are designed in part to step up pressure on Europe and others to back Washington’s plan to toughen a 2015 nuclear accord the U.S. pulled out of last year. And by threatening to penalize any individuals or companies around the world that deal with the blacklisted entities, the Trump administration is trying to cut off access to the tools and the expertise needed for a nuclear-weapons program.
Iran denies it has ever sought nuclear weapons, although a United Nations report in 2015 found it had a coordinated weapons program until 2003 and continued parts of the activities until 2009.
Iranian officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. officials aren’t saying the SPND is currently working to nuclearize Iran’s weapons program. But Sigal Mandelker, Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said the unit’s activities suggest Iran’s government still has its eye on nuclear weapons, and isn’t simply seeking a civilian nuclear program, as Tehran contends.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 accord. The Trump administration, however, cited restrictions on the IAEA’s ability to inspect all sites as among reasons it decided last year to leave the deal. The exit marked a major reversal in Washington’s Iran policy as the White House reimposed economy-wide sanctions on Iran in an effort to pressure Tehran into signing a more stringent nuclear deal and expanding the scope to include the country’s broader security stance.
The SPND inherited Iran’s original nuclear-weapons program, the AMAD program, and is run by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the sanctioned former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps brigadier general and physicist viewed by many as the father of the country’s nuclear-weapons program, U.S. officials say. The unit was sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 for its alleged efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
“They continue to operate in ways that mean the intellectual wealth of that program continues to be able to function,” Ms. Mandelker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Ford, of the State Department, said in an interview with the Journal that the SPND’s continued existence “highlights the problem of Iran’s ongoing preparation to reconstitute its whole weapons program, if it chooses to.”
“They are doing everything they can to keep in existence a virtual turnkey capability to get back into the weaponization business…at a moment’s notice,” he said.
Several of the SPND’s alleged front companies sanctioned Friday by the U.S. have been active in recent years, according to a Journal review of export records, including after Iran signed the 2015 deal.
In September 2017, one of those firms, Tehran-based Kimiya Pakhsh Shargh Co., imported special equipment for transporting radioactive material like iridium-192 from Russia. That was one of four shipments that year, and nearly six dozen since 2012, all from the same Russian company to an address in Tehran immediately next door to a government “forensic medicine” office, according to shipping data provided to the Journal by the trade database, Import Genius. The firm didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. officials, along with many Iran watchers and nuclear-weapons experts, say that while radioactive isotopes have legitimate medical uses, they also can be used in weapons programs, including for testing equipment.
According to an analysis of Iranian nuclear records seized by Israel in a raid that was disclosed in 2018, Iran has long sought to break the AMAD program into covert and overt segments. The analysis, published by the Institute for Science and International Security and co-authored by a former top IAEA official, said the archive of information shows Iran sought to transfer the more overt parts of the AMAD program to research institutes and universities, where it could plausibly claim activities to be civilian in nature.
Some of Friday’s sanction targets were derived from the archive, the administration said, without elaborating.
The Treasury Department said the Kimiya Pakhsh Shargh firm is subordinate to the SPND, taking direction from senior unit officials. And several of the targeted officials, including Jalal Emami Gharah Hajjlu, a weapon-systems engineer for the newly blacklisted missile-tech firm Shahid Karimi Group are former AMAD officials, Treasury said.
Another sanctioned Iranian firm called Pulse Niru has sought to provide financial, material and technological support for the SPND, Treasury said, procuring equipment and advanced technologies from Chinese, Russian and foreign suppliers.
Trade records show the company has imported equipment at least twice from a Russian firm called Russian Technology Group 2, whose website said it specializes in electrical products needed for neutron generators, devices that can ignite nuclear-chain reactions with a burst of atomic particles.
Other sanctioned companies and associated officials include Shahid Karimi Group, which works on missile and explosives technology; Shahid Chamran Group, specializing in electron acceleration; and Shahid Fakhar Moghaddam Group, which has worked on radiation monitoring, explosion simulators and neutron-monitoring systems, Treasury said.
The firms and individuals could not be reached or did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Taken collectively, the broad spectrum of capabilities within this group…is the expertise that it takes to develop nuclear weapons,” Ms. Mandelker said.
Mr. Ford said keeping the former AMAD officials employed in fields with dual-use materials and technology—which has both civilian and military capabilities—preserves the skills of Iran’s nuclear and advance-weapons scientists.
That signals Tehran’s strategic intentions, Mr. Ford said, and is why the U.S. is pushing its allies and other signatories to the 2015 deal to back a new nuclear accord that doesn’t give Iran the ability to enrich weapons-grade nuclear material after 10 years, the agreement’s so-called sunset clause.
“It should tell you something about the importance of absolutely precluding any capability of the Iranians to take advantage of the conditions,” he said.
Otherwise, he said, Iran will be able to rapidly build out the size and scope of the nuclear-materials program.
“All of these things would have perfectly set them up with an extraordinarily short breakout time,” Mr. Ford said, referring to the time it takes to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon.
Write to Ian Talley at firstname.lastname@example.org