Iranwire – In his last weeks in office, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served as foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 2013 to 2021, published a six-volume treatise on Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5 + 1: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Entitled The Sealed Secret, the book carries the subtitle “An Immense Endeavor for Iran’s Rights, Security and Development”. Besides Zarif’s own memoirs, the book also includes contributions and quotations from Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency during the pre-JCPOA nuclear talks, former deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, a senior nuclear negotiator and Iran’s permanent representative to the UN.
Our third article on Zarif’s book covers its first-time revelations about the role of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian the nuclear scientist who was assassinated in November 2020, in the negotiations that culminated in the JCPOA.
Before the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had a potentially seismic case open against Iran to investigate the “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, mostly going back to before 2013.
The case mainly related to activities conducted under the supervision of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and key player in the regime’s opaque nuclear program, who was assassinated on November 27 last year.
Long before the killing, the UN Security Council had put Fakhrizadeh on its sanctions list as early as 2006, subjecting him to a foreign asset freeze and travel notification requirements. Then in 2018, part of Iran’s nuclear archives were stolen in a Tehran raid by Israeli Mossad. The papers were published in spring 2021 in a book entitled Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons, which alleged that two nuclear projects code-named Amad and Sepand had been directed by Fakhrizadeh.
For years, IAEA inspectors had asked the Iranian government to allow them to meet Fakhrizadeh so that they could ask him about PMDs. But the Islamic Republic refused to allow it. Eventually in the run-up to the JCPOA, Ayatollah Khamenei personally entered the fray. In a public speech in May 2015, he expressly forbade such a meeting.
“They say that they should interview our scientists,” he said. “In other words, they want to interrogate them. We do not allow our nuclear scientists and scientists in any sensitive and important areas to endure the slightest insult.”
But Iran did want to reach a nuclear agreement that would see international sanctions lifted (and allow Iran to continue enriching uranium). This would be impossible unless the PMD case was resolved. According to The Sealed Secret, in the early days of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, the foreign ministry entered into negotiations with the defense ministry to find a solution.
Abbas Araghchi, an ex-member of the Revolutionary Guards and then deputy foreign minister, was assigned to meet with Fakhrizadeh on behalf of the nuclear negotiating team. “Considering his knowledge and his personal experience,” Zarif writes, “Engineer Fakhrizadeh was familiar with all subjects related to nuclear charges [against Iran] and, in a meeting with him, Araghchi asked for his advice.”
Apparently, what Fakhrizadeh told Araghchi mostly amounted to complaints and grievances about the Ahmadinejad administration. Its negotiating team, Fakhrizadeh reportedly said, had struggled to work with the IAEA or negotiate because of inordinate “optimism” and a “lack of attention to the fine points”.
The book then further recounts Fakhrizadeh’s criticisms of Iran’s Ahmadinejad-era nuclear negotiating teams under both Ali Larijani from 2005 to 2007 and Saeed Jalili from 2007 to 2013. According to The Sealed Secret, Fakhrizadeh was displeased with “the delivery of all kinds of information from every government agency, even the defense ministry” to the IAEA.
The nuclear scientist also said that seven rounds of negotiations with the IAEA had taken place without the knowledge of “responsible government institutions” and. These only ended in 2008 when, the book says, “negotiators from the Supreme National Security Council and the IAEA agreed to talk in Tehran, following the inspection by IAEA representatives of three workshops that were referenced in the [stolen] laptop [a computer obtained by the US in 2005, which appeared to show attempts by the Islamic Republic to design a nuclear warhead]. But when Dr. Ahmadinejad learned about this agreement, he put a stop to it.”
The IAEA Learns about Iran’s Ballistic Missiles
Fakhrizadeh viewed the above-mentioned talks as “irresponsible and a grave mistake… For the first time, the Islamic Republic had engaged in technical talks with IAEA about missiles, and this had nothing to do with agency.”
He added that at the time, officials working under Jalili at the Supreme National Security Council had asked for his help in the negotiations: “The person responsible for technical talks asked me to give him the missiles’ specification, so that he could prove to the IAEA that Iranian missiles were not designed to carry nuclear warheads.”
But, The Sealed Secret states, “this information not only did not convince the IAEA, but gave it the necessary excuse to claim certain issues related to ‘possible military dimensions’ were based on information provided by the Islamic Republic itself.”
Now Iran was in a bind. The IAEA had the blueprints of a number of Iranian ballistic missiles, which the director-general of the IAEA then attached to his November 2011 report.
Fakhrizadeh would, posthumously, go on to receive even more of the blame for the situation deteriorating under Jalili. After his assassination, Israeli media reported that the government of Israel had long held a tape of a secret meeting, in which he talked about building five nuclear warheads.
“This top-secret recording was played in 2008 by former prime minister Ehud Olmert for then-president George W. Bush,” the report said, “and was a key element in convincing the Americans to step up efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear program.”
In 2011, after the plans for ballistic missiles were handed over to the IAEA, the crisis entered a new phase. “As Martyr Fakhrizadeh told Dr. Araghchi,” Zarif writes, “after Dr. Ahmadinejad opposed the talks and they were cancelled, the story did not end there. Another round of talks between the Supreme National Security Council’s technical committee and the IAEA began, this time to find an approach to answer the new questions the IAEA had raised.”
In Zarif’s telling, Fakhrizadeh told Abbas Araghchi that the “obvious mistake by Iranian negotiators” in permitting the IAEA to ask for all kinds of information “caused the IAEA to have access to documents about all [Iran’s] military sites, staff and equipment.” Zarif adds: “Later on the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council became aware of its error and honestly tried to compensate for it, but Martyr Fakhrizadeh was of the view that it had cost Iran dear.”
Quoting Fakhrizadeh, the book goes on to say that then-nuclear negotiators had agreed to let IAEA inspectors examine certain military sites, including the Parchin military complex near Tehran. After inspecting the complex, the IAEA then asked about a certain “foreign expert” they had encountered in Parchin.
Fakhrizadeh told Araghchi that Iranian negotiators should have refused to accept such a question from the IAEA. Back in 2005, an order from the commander-in-chief of the armed forces had banned Islamic Republic officials from allowing any more visits to Parchin. But, Zarif qrites, “this ham-handed conduct once again made Parchin a bone of contention between Iran and the IAEA. It turned into something that was only solved in a roundabout way in the final days of the JCPOA negotiations.”
The Promise to Help
At the end of that revelatory meeting, The Sealed Secret states, Araghchi had promised Fakhrizadeh the IAEA would not be provided with any new information related to PMDs. “With this promise and on this understanding, Martyr Fakhrizadeh announced his readiness to join in efforts to close the PMD case.”
The PMD case was eventually closed with the unexpected help of the US Secretary of State John Kerry, without Iran having to provide all the answers the IAEA was seeking. The Sealed Secret talks about “close cooperation between nuclear negotiators and Fakhrizadeh and his colleagues” throughout that period.
The case was finally shelved on December 15, 2015 by the IAEA’s board of governors. Earlier, Ali Akbar Salehi, then the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, and the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano had agreed in a secret document that the case had been closed.
After the JCPOA came into effect, President Rouhani publicly thanked Iran’s nuclear negotiators like Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Akbar Salehi and Abbas Araghchi by decorating them with medals. Only after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination did it become known that on the same day, Rouhani had also bestowed a medal on Fakhrizadeh in a behind-closed-doors ceremony. Pictures of this ceremony were published after the assassination to show Rouhani’s appreciation of the – albeit reluctant – role that Fakhrizadeh had played.