Personnel is policy, even in nuclear weapons programs that purport not to exist.
On November 13, Iranian media outlets revealed the name of the new director of the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, an entity known by its Persian-language acronym, “SPND.” Created in 2011 to support Tehran’s restructured nuclear weapons quest, SPND was led by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, the Islamic Republic’s foremost military-nuclear scientist, from its founding until his death last November. The continued existence, operation, and staffing of SPND is a testament to Tehran’s ongoing interest in at least a nuclear weapons option, if not an actual weapon.
The name of SPND’s new chief, Reza Mozaffarinia, was not trumpeted in a formal press release, but rather relayed in passing amid a story unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program first detected by open-source analysts. The reason for the lackluster press is understandable. Mozaffarinia’s predecessor was targeted and killed last November in what many assume to be an Israeli attempt to stymie Tehran’s nuclear weapons efforts. In the years leading up to his death, Fakhrizadeh’s name appeared in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports, books, articles, and even the atomic archive that Israel exposed in 2018, all of which put Fakhrizadeh at the nexus of Iran’s nuclear and military aspirations.
At the time of this writing, it is unknown how soon after Fakhirzadeh’s death Mozaffarinia assumed his new role. This September for example, the Iranian press announced a new deputy minister of defense, Brig. Gen. Seyyed Mehdi Farahi. Some outlets reported that Gen. Farahi formerly served as the head of SPND, while others allege that he held the title of SPND chief while serving as deputy defense minister. In both instances, no timeline was offered, making it unclear whether the conflation in Farahi’s résumé is the result of a disinformation operation or reporting mistake. What is clear today however, is that several Iranian media outlets report Mozaffarinia as the chief of SPND. Accordingly, Mozaffarinia’s background is worth understanding. As Western powers again pin their hopes on resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Mozaffarinia’s service in a string of sanctioned entities tied to Iran’s military and nuclear programs still in operation remains cause for concern.
Mozaffarinia follows in Fakhirzadeh’s footsteps in more ways than one. Both were sanctioned under U.S. counterproliferation authorities and both were connected to Iran’s defense-industrial and research complex, specifically Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) and Malek Ashtar University (MUT). According to the U.S. State Department, which sanctioned SPND under the same counterproliferation authorities in 2014, “SPND took over some of the activities related to Iran’s undeclared nuclear program” that were formerly overseen by a panoply of entities including but not limited to MUT.
MUT is no ordinary university. Created in 1986 amid the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) as a joint act between the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and Ministry of Higher Education, MUT’s engineering and aerospace programs have produced or supported scholarship relevant to Iran’s missile program as well as hosted dozens of conferences on dual-use topics over the years. MUT was identified by older U.N. Security Council Resolutions on Iran as subordinate to another entity in MODAFL and subject to sanctions.
Iran’s MODAFL, which was established in 1989 pursuant to a postwar restructuring of the defense ministry, oversees a broad swath of subsidiary firms engaged in the procurement, production, and proliferation of systems, components, and technologies with specific military applications. MODAFL subsidiaries include a host of internationally sanctioned firms such as Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), which is tasked with producing ballistic missiles and overseeing fronts and sanctioned subcontractors that meet the needs of Iran’s missile supply-chain. According to the Treasury Department, AIO and MUT even developed a “missile training program” together in 2003.
MUT and MODAFL were separately sanctioned by the Treasury Department for their support for Iranian proliferation programs, but MODAFL was again designated in 2019 under U.S. counterterrorism authorities for material support to terror groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF). In past interviews where he is cited as dean of MUT, Mozaffarinia affirmed that one of the main goals of the university was engaging in the “production of emerging and defensive technologies.”
When Mozaffarinia was designated by the U.S. in 2013, Treasury specifically noted his “significant contributions to Iran’s missile program” and leadership positions as dean of MUT and deputy defense minister at MODAFL. From 2018 to 2020, Mozaffarinia appears in the Persian-language press as MODAFL’s deputy for industrial and research affairs, and on several instances as a “commander.” In fact, a 2018 press report reveals Mozaffarinia’s military rank as second brigadier general, a rank used by both Iran’s national military, the Artesh, as well as the IRGC. As MODAFL deputy, Mozaffarinia retained his rank and was often quoted in stories hailing new weapons systems, making Iranian research and development efforts more self-sufficient, as well as participating in defense expositions. Just this May for example, Mozaffarinia partook in a signing ceremony between MODAFL and the Artesh aimed at increasing the Artesh’s drone capabilities.
This combined military and scientific background is expected to serve Mozaffarinia well at SPND, just as it did Fakhrizadeh. While SPND also purports to engage in non-military scientific endeavors ranging from agricultural projects to combating the coronavirus, it’s critical to remember that Washington’s assessment about the entity’s connection to Tehran’s nuclear and military programs has not changed. This had held true even amid the partisan turbulence that gripped the Iran nuclear issue in D.C. in the past decade.
SPND was sanctioned in 2014 by the Obama administration between the interim (JPOA, achieved in 2013) and final (JCPOA, achieved in 2015) nuclear deals, likely indicating that the entity was still active and too big to be ignored or swept under the rug as a concession to Iran amid negotiations. In 2019, the Trump administration affirmed SPND’s role in Iran’s nuclear and defense programs and revealed that the entity had an estimated staff of 1,500. It further noted the “continued proliferation-sensitive research and experiments” of SPND scientists and “SPND’s use of subsidiary organizations, front companies, and procurement agents to acquire dual-use items from third-country suppliers.”
The former administration even designated a total of 31 persons and entities linked to SPND. These individuals and firms offer SPND a broad array of dual-use scientific expertise that included, but not limited to, radiation studies, semiconductor research, electromagnetics, pulse power research, and explosive and shock research. The sanctions were intended as a warning to the next generation of regime-aligned scientists in Tehran who face “reputational and financial risk[s]…by working for Iran’s nuclear program.”
With negotiations between Iran and the remaining members of the JCPOA set to reconvene in Vienna on November 29 and a fresh invitation for the IAEA director general to come to Tehran ahead of another Board of Governors meeting where Iran risks censure for its mounting nuclear violations and impediment of the IAEA mission, focusing on a personnel change may appear as missing the forest through the trees. But such an assessment would be incorrect. After the death of Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s then-defense minister promised that government employees would continue Fakhrizadeh’s path and that SPND would receive greater financial support. Personnel changes that include the promotion of men like Mozaffarinia, whose résumé parallels Fakhrizadeh’s, are a way for Tehran to signal its priorities today.
Moreover, Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy, thwarting of IAEA surveillance, failure to disclose past activities and properly explain undeclared nuclear material, as well as the continued existence, staffing, and funding of SPND should serve as a warning to the U.S. of the flaws of its JCPOA-centric approach to Iran policy. The JCPOA did absolutely nothing to thwart the activities of SPND and its research staff. The newly discovered chief of SPND should therefore serve as another warning to the Biden administration about the urgency with which to recalibrate and reconsider its approach to Iran.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues.