If you’re in charge of a nuclear facility – C. Montgomery Burns style – and want to ensure that your beloved employees don’t come down with a bad case of the Mike Scioscias , you need to worry about protecting them from radiation.
Gamma rays are nasty. Neutrons are nasty. Even alphas and betas are nasty.
There’s also a bunch of toxic substances used in nuclear weapon labs and in the nuclear fuel cycle that you’ll want to keep out of your donuts. Anhydrous fluoride. Hex. Dust from uranium, plutonium, beryllium and tungsten.
In the nuclear world, radiation safety and industrial OH&S are important business. And Iranians aren’t crazy – they take this stuff seriously too. Even in most secret of their nuclear weapon-related endeavours.
That’s good news. It gives us another area to watch to see if Iran is actually starting to build nuclear weapons.
And in this area, we more or less know where to watch.
But that’s my job. Here’s what you need to know:
There is a core group of Iranian radiation safety personnel, all of them close to Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who would be key to any attempt to produce nuclear weapons. We know who some of them are.
As a cover to conduct their business, this group probably uses a nuclear medicine company called the Novin Medical Radiation Institute.
None of these people have been designated under UN or EU sanctions.
Let’s step back for a minute. Do you remember the strange case of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri (شهرام امیری) who in 2009, allegedly defected to the US while on a Hajj visit to Mecca? Made some increasingly wacky videos before heading back to Tehran? Well, according to the New York Times, Amiri was an expert in radiation detection and employee safety who had been based at the Mojdeh Street site in Tehran (the well‑known base of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s ongoing nuclear weapon‑related research effort).
Who knows what Amiri was asked by his American hosts. But with the sort of background described by the NY Times, Amiri sounds like exactly the type of person who would have been very useful for the AMAD weapons program’s radiation safety and health physics work. I’d probably have done a runner too, if that was my day job…
I dare say that since getting back to Iran, MOIS probably isn’t too keen to let Mr Amiri back into Iran’s nuclear facilities. So Fakhrizadeh will have to rely on Amiri’s contemporaries to keep his program safe – that is to say, officials from the SPND organisation who have a background in health physics and nuclear safety. Let’s start with Amiri and work out to find out who they are.
The radiation safety crew
Amiri doesn’t have much of an academic profile, so far as I can tell. His sole published co-author that I can find is Parviz Katani (پرویز کتانی). Amiri and Katani wrote a joint paper on gamma dosimetry – monitoring exposure to gamma radiation. Helpful stuff when you’re working with nuclear material. And according to other credible sources, Katani was actually Amiri’s line manager in AMAD. We’ll assume that Katani either is or could be part of Fakhrizadeh’s safety crew.
Who else is there? According to Die Welt – another good source of Iran nuke information – the head of nuclear medicine in Fakhrizadeh’s organisation was a guy called Mohsen Foroughizadeh (محسن فروغی زاده). Foroughizadeh has a bit more of an online profile – you’ll find him here in a paper describing an Iranian conference about responding to radiation emergencies, sponsored by the IAEA. He’s also written about decontamination after nuclear accidents, depleted uranium, and the toxicology of uranium compounds (wahey, good times!). With research interests like that, it’s not at all hard to believe that he’s tied into the Fakhrizadeh gang.
Foroughizadeh hangs with some interesting folks – such as Hashem Setareh (هاشم ستاره), one of his business associates.
Look at Setareh’s CV and you’ll see he has worked for the Iranian organisation named MAVT or ERI, which until about 2010 used to oversee Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program, according to the IAEA. Setareh has also published papers on uranium contamination. I reckon he probably is, has been, or could be a pretty important member of the radiation safety crew.
The Mysterious Dr Akhlaghpour
One man who probably knows more than most about radiation safety aspects of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons work is Dr Shahram Akhlaghpour (شهرام اخلاقپور). Akhlaghpour’s involvement in Iran’s dodgy dealings can be traced back to 1991, when his name first appears in telexes detailing covert procurement undertaken by Iran’s Physics Research Centre. These telexes make clear that Akhlaghpour was one of the PHRC’s key buyers for its nuclear weapons lab kit.
Dr Aklaghpour, unsurprisingly given his appearance in this blog post, is a radiation safety guru. Google Akhlaghpour’s name (it’s not a common one by Iranian standards) and you’ll get some interesting results. You’ll see that Akhlaghpour has published all sorts of papers on radiation safety and nuclear medicine. Google hard enough and you can even find his picture from a conference on radiation emergencies back in 2004 (yep, the very same conference attended by Mr Foroughizadeh):
Interesting stuff. I’d take a punt that Akhlaghpour’s involvement in Iran’s nuclear weapons program went beyond the PHRC glory days of the 1990s to a bit later. Perhaps to 2004 – and most likely beyond that.
The Novin Medical Radiation Institute
Why do I say that? Well, look at the host organisation of the course – it’s something called the Novin Medical Radiation Institute (انستیتو پرتو پزشکی نوین). To me, this entity looks like pretty dodgy. And it’s not just me: the NCRI has alleged that as of 2007, Novin Medical became part of Fakhrizadeh’s organisation and was responsible for radiation safety duties for the Iranian military.
Is this credible? Just what is Novin Medical? Well, it’s not exactly a covert organisation. You can visit their website here. According to their website, they’re a provider of medical radiology services and equipment – finding and treating cancer, for one. These are their not‑particularly-hidden headquarters off Hormoz Street and Pirouzan Avenue in Tehran:
Not exactly Fordow on the evil lair scale, is it?
But this might be a case of hiding in plain sight. I have a suspicion that Novin Medical is basically a front company for SPND – a way for SPND to covertly conduct health physics research and to procure equipment necessary for ensuring the safety of their clandestine work (things like thermoluminescent dosimeters used for measuring long-term radiation exposure). And if SPND is running the place sensibly, Novin Medical might just be turning a tidy profit as well! (Wowsers – Fakhrizadeh profiting from Iranian cancer patients to fund an illicit nuclear weapons program – hold the front page of the Sunday papers, I think we’re onto something with that one.)
There are still unanswered questions, though. So what would I like to know about Novin Medical? Well, to start with, I’d like to ask the folks there if they know what happened to the whole body counters that Dr Akhlaghpour bought for the PHRC, and were used for monitoring radiation doses in AMAD. If those things are housed within Novin Medical these days then I’d pretty much hang the SPND sign over the door.
I’d also like to know who Novin Medical currently has on the books in terms of personnel, and how many current or ex-AMAD types are running round the place.
Dig about a bit online and you’ll find that there are plenty of scientists who apparently fit this bill. For example, check out the following research paper with Novin Medical on the byline:
Who’s the Novin Medical-affiliated author in this research? His full name is Mohammad Hassan Zahmatkesh (محمد حسن زخمتکش). Look him up online and you’ll see that he’s been outed as part of – surprise surprise – Fakhrizadeh’s SPND organisation.
With more Googling you’ll see that Zahmatkesh was a member of the Iranian delegation to a 2009 meeting of parties to the Comprehensive Test‑Ban Treaty Organisation, the international organisation that monitors adherence to the nuclear test ban treaty. Bit weird for a medical radiologist to be in attendance? Well, no – not when he’s REALLY QUITE INTERESTED IN TESTING NUCLEAR WEAPONS! These guys really are shameless.
(And note the second cited author on that paper: the late great nuclear physicist Dr Majid Shahriari, the neutron expert deeply involved in AMAD. I’m not convinced that this research paper – and for that matter, Novin Medical’s work more generally – is entirely for peaceful purposes.)
So we’re left with a bunch of guys (and girls) who appear to be have been deeply involved in radiation safety work for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
One, though, appears to have given up that field for greener pastures. It looks like our man Dr Akhlaghpour has departed Novin Medical – the current manager appears to be someone named Ali Dodangeh (علی دودانگه) (see here and here ). Indeed, there’s no sign that Akhlaghpour’s been involved with Novin Medical for at least the past few years: he’s now running a medical clinic named Pardis Noor – and must be doing very well, if his Dr Oz-style smile ‘n scrubs are anything to go by:
Get that man a job on Oprah! I’m not sure, but I get the sense that Dr Akhlaghpour might have given up the clandestine nuclear weapons world for good. Is there any other way to explain that smile?
All those other folks, though, still have a definite whiff of dodginess about them. EU, UN – any chance that you might want to sanction any of them? Just to recap, here they are:
Ali Dodangeh - (علی دودانگه)
Mohsen Foroughizadeh - (محسن فروغی زاده)
Hashem Setareh - (هاشم ستاره)
Mohammad Hassan Zahmatkesh - (محمد حسن زخمتکش)
And for good measure…
Novin Medical Radiation Institute - (انستیتو پرتو پزشکی نوین)
Well that’s my work done for the day. Thanks, World Police – I’ll take it the cheque’s in the mail?Comment on this article...