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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why Was Iran’s Nuclear Expert Fakhrizadeh Secretly Decorated After the JCPOA Went into Effect?

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare

Why Was Iran’s Nuclear Expert Fakhrizadeh Secretly Decorated After the JCPOA Went into Effect?
Iran’s President Rouhani pins a “second-class service” badge on Brig.-Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on February 19, 2016. Watching on the left is then-Defense Minister General Hossein Dehqan.1

The Iranian Islamic Republic made a considerable effort to explain to the Iranian people how grateful they should be to the late Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Brigadier-General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mastermind and longtime director of the Iranian military nuclear program. In this context, the government issued portraits of Fakhrizadeh hugging the late commander of the IRGC Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, clarifying how these two generals were responsible for the two parallel vectors to turn Iran into a hegemon superpower in the Islamic world and on the global dimension – exporting the Islamic revolution and acquiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Two Revolutionary Guard martyred generals
Portrait of the two Revolutionary Guard martyred generals.

The Iranian regime released scores of photographs after Fakhrizadeh’s death, and it was prone to making mistakes. One picture showed the camera-shy “scientist” joining others in a January 2019 meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei.2

January 2019 meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei

 Besides showing Fakhrizadeh meeting with the Supreme Leader Khamenei, from their perspective, the Iranians showed too many pictures, some showing Dr. Fakhrizadeh receiving a special award from President Rouhani for his role in achieving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, concluded with the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China in 2015. The award was given to Fakhrizadeh on February 9, 2016, shortly after the JCPOA came into effect, following the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that certified Iran shared all necessary information about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program. In attendance was one of Iran’s negotiators on the JCPOA, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi. While the other members of the Iranian negotiating team were awarded similar tokens of appreciation publicly a day earlier, Fakhrizadeh was honored in a closed-door ceremony because of the secrecy that surrounded him.

Iranian JCPOA negotiator Salahi in the back with Rouhani and Fakhrizadeh
Iranian JCPOA negotiator Salahi in the back with Rouhani and Fakhrizadeh.3

Why was the Iranian leadership so thankful and appreciative to the head of the military nuclear program after the conclusion of a deal that allegedly guaranteed, as President Obama pledged, that any path Iran may take to achieve a nuclear weapon is blocked? One would expect Brigadier-General Dr. Fakhrizadeh to be upset about a deal that limited his work. However, instead, he seems to be happy and satisfied in the picture. Why?

Who Guided the Iranian Negotiating Team?

The answer, to those who want to return to the JCPOA, is very simple: The nuclear-chain expert, Fakhrizadeh, instructed the Iranian negotiating team what issues they should insist upon to make sure that the deal improves Iran’s capability to acquire a nuclear arsenal. He got everything he wanted. He managed to get his way because of the poor handling of the negotiations by the American team. He had every reason to be gleeful.

Firstly, he engineered the Iranian negotiations to force the Americans to accept a set of sunsets terminating after 15 years. After five years, the arms embargo was lifted; after eight years, the restrictions on the research, development, and use of advanced centrifuges are gone; after ten years, the limits on the level of uranium enrichment are lifted; and after 15 years, Iran can enrich as much uranium as it wishes, at any level – including to military level – and build heavy water reactors that can be used to produce plutonium – an easier way to produce nuclear weapons.

Moreover, Iran was allowed to keep all its nuclear facilities active, including the secret deep underground facility at Fordow, erected only for military purposes, and none of its 19,000 centrifuges was dismantled. Six thousand kept enriching uranium, and the rest were either disassembled and kept in underground production halls or used for purposes other than uranium enrichment. No reference was made in the Iran Deal to the development and production of delivery systems, namely missiles, and all the international sanctions on Iran were lifted immediately with a bonus of $1.7 billion in cash.

If this were not enough to justify Rouhani’s and Fakhrizadeh’s satisfaction, they were also celebrating another outstanding achievement – there was not going to be any real monitoring of the military nuclear program. The monitoring was to be confined only to declared sites. If the IAEA wished to inspect other sites, it had to present a request to a committee and expose the source for the request. And the icing on the cake – the inspectors would not have access to the Iranian scientists, especially not to Fakhrizadeh himself! Hurray!

On all of those critical issues, the opening position of the American negotiating team was quite different. They sought the dismantling of Fordow and the non-active centrifuges; they wanted the missile issue to be addressed; they were looking for the destruction of the heavy water reactor at Arak; and they were pushing for a much longer set of sunsets and real monitoring. All of those positions were abandoned because some people in Washington, some of whom today criticize the killing of Fakhrizadeh, believed that the stripped-down deal would make Iran give up its commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons and turn it into a positive actor in the Middle East and the family of nations.

So the people in the pictures celebrated. Their path to a large arsenal of nuclear weapons was guaranteed. It would take a little more time, but they would not have to cross any dangerous thresholds, face economic difficulties, or fear a military attack on their sensitive facilities. Yes, they had to “come clean” on the potential military dimensions of their program. Fakhrizadeh knew how to handle this minuscule obstacle. He had a formidable record of cheating the IAEA, as documented in the Iranian nuclear archive. He instructed the interlocutors with the IAEA what to tell the inspectors to make sure that the late IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano would step aside and allow everyone to move on with the JCPOA. After all, Amano was not going to spoil the party. (Fakhrizadeh was probably aware of the rumors that there was an understanding between the United States and IAEA that Amano would not cause trouble).

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a meeting with the Minister of Defense, General Amir Hatami
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, left, in a meeting with the Minister of Defense, General Amir Hatami (Tasnim News)

O Sancta Simplicitas!” Now, in retrospect, we already know that Iran never meant to change its policy and give up the military nuclear project. This is evident from the above pictures, from the way they saved their archives, from the contents of the archives, and from everything Iran did after the JCPOA came into effect, and especially after the United States withdrew from the agreement. The Iranians’ problem, though, was that now they had to face a problematic threshold that separated them from accumulating enough fissile material for 1-2 nuclear devices and suffering painful economic difficulties. Fakhrizadeh is no longer there to lead them to a successful result.

Worrisome Conclusion

With this background, the new administration must be very cautious. Rejoining a bad deal will make Khamenei, Rouhani, and Fakhrizadeh’s successor smile again. It is time to admit the mistakes of the past and learn the lessons. The “maximum pressure” policy gives the Biden administration the leverage to force Iran to accept a much better deal that would really guarantee that the radical Islamic regime in Tehran will not have a nuclear weapon for decades to come. Biden knows it, and even columnist Tom Friedman gave him that advice.4

Biden, according to Friedman, said he wants to work together with the other partners of the JCPOA toward reentering the agreement and improving it. Biden said that once he rejoins the deal, he may use the “snap back option,” the one feature in the deal the Iranians fear. That is an interesting aspect, but why enter a dangerous deal whose structure was built by Fakhrizadeh to permit Iran to get whatever it wants without breaching it and giving the United States an excuse to snap back the sanctions.

Let us hope the Biden Administration will take advantage of this opportunity.

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