Source: Consortium News
When Western intelligence agencies began in the early 1990s to intercept telexes from an Iranian university to foreign high technology firms, intelligence analysts believed they saw the first signs of military involvement in Iran's nuclear program. That suspicion led to U.S. intelligence assessments over the next decade that Iran was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.
The supposed evidence of military efforts to procure uranium enrichment equipment shown in the telexes was also the main premise of the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program from 2003 through 2007.
In 2007-08, Iran provided hard evidence that the technologies had actually been sought by university teachers and researchers. The intercepted telexes that set in train the series of U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran was working on nuclear weapons were sent from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran beginning in late 1990 and continued through 1992.
The dates of the telexes, their specific procurement requests and the telex number of PHRC were all revealed in a February 2012 paper by David Albright, the executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security, and two co-authors.
The telexes that interested intelligence agencies following them all pertained to dual-use technologies, meaning that they were consistent with work on uranium conversion and enrichment but could also be used for non-nuclear applications. But what raised acute suspicions on the part of intelligence analysts was the fact that those procurement requests bore the telex number of the Physics Research Center (PHRC), which was known to have contracts with the Iranian military.
U.S., British, German and Israeli foreign intelligence agencies were sharing raw intelligence on Iranian efforts to procure technology for its nuclear program, according to published sources. The telexes included requests for "high-vacuum" equipment, "ring" magnets, a balancing machine and cylinders of fluorine gas, all of which were viewed as useful for a program of uranium conversion and enrichment.
The Schenck balancing machine ordered in late 1990 or early 1991 provoked interest among proliferation analysts, because it could be used to balance the rotor assembly parts on the P1 centrifuge for uranium enrichment. The "ring" magnets sought by the university were believed to be appropriate for centrifuge production. The request for 45 cylinders of fluorine gas was considered suspicious, because fluorine is combined with uranium to produce uranium hexafluoride, the form of uranium that used for enrichment.
The first indirect allusion to evidence from the telexes in the news came in late 1992, when an official of the George H. W. Bush administration told The Washington Post that the administration had pushed for a complete cutoff of all nuclear-related technology to Iran, because of what was called "a suspicious procurement pattern."
Then the Iranian efforts to obtain those specific technologies from major foreign suppliers were reported, without mentioning the intercepted telexes, in a Public Broadcasting System "Frontline" documentary called "Iran and the Bomb" broadcast in April 1993, which portrayed them as clear indications of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The producer of the documentary, Herbert Krosney, described the Iranian procurement efforts in similar terms in his book Deadly Business published the same year.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton's CIA Director John Deutch declared, "A wide variety of data indicate that Tehran has assigned civilian and military organizations to support the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons."
For the next decade, the CIA's non-proliferation specialists continued to rely on their analysis of the telexes to buttress their assessment that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The top-secret 2001 National Intelligence Estimate bore the title "Iran Nuclear Weapons Program: Multifaceted and Poised to Succeed, but When?"
Former IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards, Olli Heinonen, recalled in a May 2012 article that the IAEA had obtained a "set of procurement information about the PHRC" -- an obvious reference to the collection of telexes -- which led him to launch an investigation in 2004 of what the IAEA later called the "Procurement activities by the former Head of PHRC."
But after an August 2007 agreement between Iran and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei on a timetable for the resolution of "all remaining issues," Iran provided full information on all the procurement issues the IAEA had raised. That information revealed that the former PHRC head, Sayyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh, who had been a professor at Sharif University at the time, had been asked by several faculty departments to help procure equipment or material for teaching and research.
Iran produced voluminous evidence to support its explanation for each of the procurement efforts the IAEA had questioned. It showed that the high vacuum equipment had been requested by the Physics Department for student experiments in evaporation and vacuum techniques for producing thin coatings by providing instruction manuals on the experiments, internal communications and even the shipping documents on the procurement.
The Physics Department had also requested the magnets for students to carry out "Lenz-Faraday experiments," according to the evidence provided, including the instruction manuals, the original requests for funding and the invoice for cash sales from the supplier. The balancing machine was for the Mechanical Engineering Department, as was supported by similar documentation turned over to the IAEA. IAEA inspectors had also found that the machine was indeed located at the department.