A Dubious Purchase: Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Iran turned to its citizens when the government could not obtain nuclear equipment on the international market.
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“Until We Are Free,” by Shirin Ebadi, narrates how Iran’s government took her life away, and how she persevered.

Until We Are Free (Random House, 2016), by Shirin Ebadi, recounts the author’s persecution and investigation by the Iranian government. The following excerpt from chapter three (“The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Centrifuge”) tells the story of how a government agent and an American attempted to lure her into buying a nuclear centrifuge under the guise of solving Iran’s land mine problem.

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In most Iranian cities there is at least one artificial limb shop, for the country has the second highest number of land mines in the world studded into its soil. An estimated sixteen million mines are left over from the war with Iraq, waiting to explode beneath an unsuspecting farmer or child. The government has not done nearly enough to address the land mine problem, and to cover up this neglect it also censors news coverage of land mine deaths and mutilations. As a result, most Iranians who live outside the worst-afflicted regions have little idea that their country harbors such dangers.

This is why I established the Mine Clearing Collaboration Association, the first such NGO in Iran. My primary aim was to make land mines a daily topic; in my experience, when a fringe problem becomes a national problem that people are aware of and discuss in daily conversations, solutions emerge, and pressure also mounts on the government to take some action. The state could pursue mine removal more seriously, and it could also join the Ottawa Convention, which demands that states halt the production and deployment of land mines. Another aim of the organization was to  provide  financial help to the injured and wounded, as many of the hardest-hit areas are also quite poor, and the cost of the prosthetics themselves, along with the loss of the ability to work, can be devastating for families. Gradually the Iranian public became more exposed to the issue. The problem in the ground had become a problem on people’s minds, and I was hopeful that the government would start dealing more proactively with mine removal.

On a cloudy afternoon in February 2004, a middle-aged man came to my personal law office, on the ground floor of my apartment building, and identified himself as a government official. He was accompanied by a man he introduced as an American colleague, a professor from Stanford University. I offered both of them a cup of tea and some raisin cookies, and the official explained to me in detail how the government was deeply committed to tackling the land mine crisis; however, he noted, serious obstacles had emerged around the procurement of advanced mine-removal equipment. The most technologically effective demining tools, he said, qualified as “dual-use” goods, meaning that Iran could also use them for military purposes, and therefore international sanctions made it impossible for the state to import such devices. He insisted that this challenge was at the core of the government’s difficulties in removing mines.

I listened patiently, leaning into the  beige floral upholstery of the armchair, wondering where the conversation would lead. The man stated that he had long-standing expertise in demining and that he had personally designed a device that would work effectively to detect mines on the desert terrain of Iran’s western provinces.

“The trouble is, I need to purchase one of the key components abroad, but none of the manufacturers are prepared to sell to me,” he said. “They don’t trust the government with such a part.”

The American, the official explained, was going to assist in the production of the mine-detection equipment. But he did not speak Persian, and he sat impassively listening to our conversation.

“If you, Khanoum Ebadi, would be able to place the order for this component, I would certainly cover all the costs,” the official said.

“What exactly is the problem with this component?” I asked.

“Well, it can be used for making centrifuges.”

At that time, Iran’s nuclear program and all its associated technical complications were not matters of daily debate in the media, so the term “centrifuge” didn’t immediately connote anything for me.

“Centrifuges can have a military use, and these American sanctions end up making it impossible for us to procure things we need. If we had this part, Iran would be able to manufacture its own very effective mine-detection machines. Imagine how quickly we could then remove mines.”

The American shifted his long legs. He said nothing to signal that he understood what was being said about his country’s role in our country’s demining problems. “Could you write the name of this component down for me,” I asked, handing the official a piece of paper. I promised that I would talk to some friends who might be able to help, and I said I would do whatever I could in the service of my country.

The two men thanked me and headed out to a waiting taxi. I sat alone in my office holding the scrap of paper, listening to the faint sound of the radio coming from the apartment above. There was an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. I had started the land mine NGO in order to do something so that children would stop getting blown up while playing in the fields. My feelings about this cause were fierce, because these were such senseless deaths and injuries, entirely preventable if the government would only enact better policies. Now it seemed like I was in a position to take a tangible action. But there was something peculiar about the two men, the silent, tall American from Stanford and the official who so desperately needed this part.

A week later, when I was in Paris attending a seminar, I spoke to my old friend Dr. Karim Lahidji, who would later become the chairman of the International Federation for Human Rights, about the men and their request. He advised me not to get involved in such dealings and, instead, to focus on helping those injured by land mines. Because I had no technical expertise in such matters, it seemed like sensible advice. Besides, I had no idea where I would even begin the search to buy — in bulk, at that — some obscure part that could fit into a centrifuge.

When I returned to Tehran, the official rang to ask for another meeting. I explained that it was simply too complicated for me to find a seller of the part he needed. He never contacted me again. Why an American had been involved, and who he was, I will never know. Perhaps I should have been savvier at the time; but it was only a few years later, when the nuclear dispute truly turned into international news and it became commonplace to read about the West’s concern with Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, that it occurred to me that  the  strange men might have been intelligence agents. They had sought to exploit my international stature to carry out a shady transaction, buying banned parts from the West that they were unable to procure themselves. Had they intended to entrap me, or did they simply hope to use me to acquire a part that was proving hard to secure? Although I like to think that the surveillance and harassment I’ve endured over the years has made me watchful, always on the lookout for odd coincidences and interactions that reveal the hand of Iranian intelligence trying to get close to me, the land mine venture took me by surprise. It showed me that no matter how alert I kept myself, the Islamic Republic would scheme and machinate in ways that I could never anticipate. And it was only going to get worse.

Reprinted with permission from Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in IranbyShirin Ebadi and published by Random House, 2016.

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