Testing Times: How Iran’s Ministry of Defence is out to sabotage the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty


With so much attention paid over the last decade to Iran’s wrangling with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the uneasy stand-off between Tehran and another international nuclear watchdog - the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation - has gone largely unnoticed. The CTBT is more than just a paper agreement to not test nuclear weapons. It’s a multilateral, internationally-owned network of seismic, acoustic and air monitoring hardware across the globe that ensures that states party to the CTBT uphold their promise not to conduct nuclear tests. And like the IAEA’s role in policing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there’s an international organisation that oversees the CTBT - the Vienna-based CTBTO.

You might be surprised to learn that Iran is a signed-up member of the CTBTO. It attends CTBTO meetings. It undertake CTBTO projects. It even hosts three CTBT monitoring stations a primary seismic monitoring facility in Tehran, and two auxiliary seismic stations in Shustar and Kerman. But Tehran’s relationship with the CTBTO is by no means hunky-dory. Iran’s parliament has never ratified the CTBT. Tehran pulled the plug on its main CTBT seismic monitoring station in an apparent fit of pique back in 2002, and it has remained offline ever since. And Iran has never allowed those seismic stations in Shustar and Kerman to be certified by the CTBTO, let alone connected to the CTBTO’s international monitoring system. Supporting the CTBT should be a no-brainer for Tehran - and that’s what Iran’s public statements would have you think. Instead, the country has done its best to become the treaty’s least cooperative member state.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this poor state of affairs. At every turn, Iran’s Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL - وزارت دفاع و پشتیبانی نیروهای مسلح) has worked to oppose, undermine, and subvert Iran’s obligations under the CTBTO. And it should not surprise you to learn that the organisation responsible for Iran’s clandestine military nuclear research, SPND (سپند), is at the heart of this anti-CTBT campaign.

For more than ten years, the overriding objective behind Iran’s dealings with the CTBTO has been the advancement of SPND’s main goal: an ability to conduct nuclear tests or nuclear explosive experiments without detection. That objective is never far from the surface in Iran’s dealings with the CTBTO. In January 2002, for example, Iran disconnected its sole certified seismic monitoring station, located in Tehran, from the CTBTO’s international monitoring system.

The Iranian government never really articulated the rationale for that act: but in hindsight, we can see that the one element in Tehran that stood to benefit more than any other was SPND’s predecessor - the clandestine nuclear weapons programme known as AMAD (آماد). At that precise time - as we know from the IAEA’s compressive dossier on AMAD - preparations were being made in earnest within the AMAD group to conduct several weapon-related explosive experiments, along with plans for an underground nuclear weapons test.

Disconnecting the Tehran seismograph from the CTBTO’s monitoring network would, in the minds of the AMAD scientists, prevent the international community from detecting these small-scale explosive experiments - and, they hoped, the planned nuclear test. But this test never went ahead. So those AMAD scientists - including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (محسن فخری زاده), the current head of SPND - were unable to learn just how sensitive the CTBTO’s international monitoring system was.

Ever since then, AMAD’s successors within SPND - a semi-covert arm of MODAFL - have worked their hardest to deny the CTBTO data that could reveal the scale of their nuclear weapon-related experiments. And they’ve been willing to do so even when it puts lives at risk. Take this example. Since about 2005, the CTBTO has been releasing seismic and infrasound data from its global monitoring network for use in international tsunami early warning detection systems.

It’s a wonderful idea which is almost universally endorsed across the world: using the CTBT’s infrastructure to help prevent deaths by seismically-triggered tsunamis. Incredibly, MODAFL interests - spurred by who else but Mohsen Fakhrizadeh - have directed Iran’s attendees at CTBTO meetings to oppose these data transfers at all cost. Fakhrizadeh’s fear, apparently, is that routine provision of data for humanitarian purposes will open the door to international exposure of otherwise-secret Iranian missile launches or nuclear experiments (did anyone say Parchin?). And while it’s MODAFL that is driving Iran’s subversion of the CTBT, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other civilian officials involved in internal deliberations on the treaty are equally complicit.

Reportedly, the civilian head of Iran’s CTBT office, earthquake expert Professor Mohsen Ghafory-Ashtiany (محسن‌ غفوری‌ آشتیانی), at one point actually debated whether to give the CTBTO the data it sought for the tsunami system and even considered sending the CTBTO incomplete data - purely to protect MODAFL’s interests.

It's not hard to imagine Fakhrizadeh personally organising this. His influence in Iran's internal CTBTO deliberations has clearly been cancerouse. But does his and the SPND influence go further.

Only a handful of Iranian officials are ever allowed to attend the international meetings of the CTBTO. For Tehran’s diplomats and senior officials, overseas junkets like these are a tightly-held privilege (and yes, they enjoy duty-free as much as the rest of us.)

Equally tightly-held is this secret: that Iran’s delegations to the CTBTO almost always include members of SPND (سپند), the clandestine military nuclear research organisation whose main interest in the CTBT is how to circumvent it. They’re essentially there as saboteurs - sent in to learn how the CTBTO’s international nuclear test monitoring capability works so that they can sneak around it back at home. Of course it would be nice to say who they are. And perhaps next time your redline correspondent will....

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