ARDESHIR HOSSEINPOUR: INVESTIGATING A MYSTERIOUS DEATH
Originally published in IL VENERDI’ of LA REPUBBLICA, 31 August 2007
Three words. The e-mail messages we received that afternoon didn't contain anything else: just three words, which didn’t even have any meaning whatsoever. Nonetheless, those three words were indeed important: they were a reply. Like some sort of internet séance, we had sent an email to the personal address of Ardeshir Hosseinpour, an Iranian physicist who died last January under mysterious circumstances. The world heard of him only after he had left it forever, bringing his secrets to his grave. Was Hosseinpour Ahmadinejad’s Oppenheimer, the key man in the atomic dreams of Tehran? Only one thing seems certain: Ardeshir Hosseinpour is dead. This is what international media all around the world have said. It even seems that a video of his funeral was available for viewing on the Internet. Dead and buried, therefore. Now, though, someone had sent us a signal: four email messages: “Dear Sir, I.” Nothing else. Who had e-mailed us? And why?
Isfahan, Arak, Natanz. These are names the world is holding its breath for. The names of the key sites of the Iranian nuclear programme. Scrutinized by satellites night and day, they have filled scores of pages of IAEA reports, they have worried inspectors, analysts, strategists and spies. What secrets do they hide? A life lived in the shadows, a death shrouded in secrecy, Ardeshir Hosseinpour was a man who knew things, a leading man in this atomic arm-wrestle between Iran and the U.S., which is perhaps sinking into new war and horrors. “He was killed by the Mossad,” the Sunday Times revealed on the 4th of February, thus firing up conspiracy lovers. Hosseinpour, aged 44, was killed for his role in the Iranian nuclear programme, according to the British newspaper: he had worked for the Isfahan plants, where uranium is converted into gas (uranium hexafluoride), which in turn is put in centrifuges for enrichment processes. But where did Hosseinpour die? How and when, precisely? The Sunday Times’ article isn’t rich in detail. Nonetheless, it tells a credible story, supported by two sources: Radio Farda, which is financed by the U.S. government and broadcast in Farsi, and Stratfor, an American private intelligence service. According to Radio Farda, Hosseinpour died from ‘gas poisoning,’ whereas Stratfor goes a step further by mentioning exposure to radioactive sources and hinting that it was on account of the Mossad that the Iranian TV reported Hosseinpour’s death on the 21st of January - a week after his actual death. Tehran delayed that news over and over, but Ardeshir Hosseinpour was so ‘prominent’ – as Stratfor says – that, in the end, the announcement of his death could no longer be avoided. So Hosseinpour was probably killed on or around the 14th of January. He was killed by a radioactive gas, maybe, and he might have been killed for his work at Isfahan. “That’s propaganda,” the Fars News Agency replied curtly, “the Mossad is incapable of running operations inside Iran.” Hosseinpour died by accident – adds the Fars News Agency - he was “suffocated by fumes from a faulty gas fire in his sleep” and, in any case, he “was in no way connected to Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.” After a long period of silence, Baztab then enters into the equation. An Iranian website considered to be close to hard-liner Mohsen Rezaee, the former Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Baztab doesn’t give any further details about when, how or where Hosseinpour died, but it also dismisses the Mossad hypothesis. Then it proceeds to talk seemingly proudly about who Hosseinpour was: a brilliant mind of the Shiraz and Malek Ashtar Iranian Universities, who had worked on the Iranian missile programme and was “a leading scientist in designing centrifuges.” So Hosseinpour was a collaborationist, a damned brilliant young physicist, the pride of the Iranian regime. But that's not actually the case; the surprising turn of events comes from Dubai, headquarters of Al-Arabiya TV. “Hosseinpour was in email contact with me” – Ali Nourizadeh told Al Arabiya. Nourizadeh is a well-established Iranian journalist who is a long-time critic of the Iranian regime and is currently based in London. The Iranian physicist had written to him a few weeks before his death: he feared he was being followed and was scared. According to Nourizadeh, Hosseinpour had worked on military programmes in the past, but Ahmadinejad’s victory had changed everything: he believed that the regime was a danger for Iran and, from their side, Ahmadinejad’s regime suspected that the physicist was leaking information to the West. Hosseinpour – fears Nourizadeh – was killed by the regime. But was he an opponent or a collaborationist? Who was Ardeshir Hosseinpour? A Dr. Strangelove who was killed to prevent him from making the bomb, or rather a ‘dissident’ to be killed before he could tell about the bomb? And how did he die? And, most importantly, who wanted him dead?
The scientific community is very interconnected and international. It speaks a universal language, English, and has fairly universal rules. If you cannot get information from a Tehran university, you can maybe get it from some arcane scientific German magazine, unknown to 6 billion people in the world, apart from the 4 super-specialists who publish their works in it. However, there’s a limit to this availability of information: scientists who work on military research programmes enter into a parallel academic world, where opacity and secrecy are the norms. If you look at the websites of the Iranian universities where Hosseinpour worked, you can see how little information is available about his work. He was a brilliant mind, an emergent scientist who published his works in international journals. Where are the fruits of his genius? Academically, he's like a ghost. “He was an assistant professor at the metallurgy department of Shiraz University,” a source we cannot identify tells us, “an outstanding student.” We piece together Ardeshir Hosseinpour's resumé, albeit a very brief one. One of the universities he worked for, the Malek Ahstar, is of concern: his rector is listed in an annex to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737 of December 23, 2006 as a person involved in Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities. “What kind of scientific profile can you get from this resumé?”, we ask a major American physicist who worked on Los Alamos’ nuclear weapons lab: today, he’s a ‘dove’, nonetheless he remains one of the most important experts on those weapons in the world. “His papers are totally unrelated to nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, but he could have had a career change”, he explains. “Of course of all the physicists who built the first atomic bombs in the US, 1941-1945, almost none of them had ever previously worked in the nuclear physics field."
And what about the four cryptic e-mail messages we received from Hosseinpour's personal e-mail address? “Can we get any information from them?”, we ask a computer expert. “I need the messages’ headers.” The four e-mails – he says – are from the Iran University of Science and Technology, the university where Ahmadinejad got his Ph.D as a civil engineer. Hosseinpour didn’t work there, so who's writing us then? A later e-mail from that same personal address finally uncovers the answer to that question: “I am the wife of Ardeshir Hosseinpour. He was [a] great scientist and a very great and unique person. I don’t know how he passed away. I talked with him [that] night he came home alone and I stayed at my father's home. When the day after I went home I found him dead. [The] police said the heater didn’t burn perfectly and the smoke of heater came back to home and the house got full of CO and it happened. They said the carbon in his blood was high. I really don’t know what has happened.” Sara – as she signs her message – is a student at the Iran University of Science and Technology. She confirms for the umpteenth time that the death of Hosseinpour really is a mystery: the email message she sent us doesn’t contain any details whatsover which could help us identify where and when those facts took place. She mentions a ‘home’ - which home? For example, the physicists who worked on the first Anglo-American bomb lived with their wives and children in ‘their houses’, but those houses were in Los Alamos, a secret town in the desert, where the physicists often lived under false identities. Birth certificates of new-born babies at Los Alamos were inscribed with only a mailbox number: P.O. Box 1663. Ardeshir Hosseinpour’s wife has told us the official version of the story: the coroner officially mentioned “gas suffocation.” However, if had he actually died in a trivial accident in a trivial house in Tehran, why so much mystery? Why were none of his colleagues willing to reply to our e-mail messages? They could just say it was an accident – a terribile one, but just an accident. They didn’t do that. “No one is allowed to speak,” Nourizadeh tell us. “His mother is not allowed, neither is his family. No one.” Then he reconstructs his version of the story: Hosseinpour had been in e-mail contact with him for two years and he had given him some information about Iranian missiles. He didn’t like Ahmadinejad; he wanted to leave Iran and he had asked Nourizadeh for help in finding a university where he could teach. Two weeks after his last message, he was dead. We try to cross-check whether Sara actually exists by asking him questions without putting words in his mouth. Did Hosseinpour have a wife? “Yes,” he tells us: her name is Sara and she’s a student. However, trying to contact Sara once again is almost useless, as is trying to explain to her that we can call her using the Skype computer-to-computer system, which is “indeed very, very resistent to the possibility of illegal tapping," as explains a leading expert from Milan's Politecnico. “The letter that you sent to me was checked by someone else,” Sara replies. “Now I changed the password, but I know there will be problems. I think I cannot go to any other country. Now the best thing is to wait in silence, but things may change.”
Later on, however, we are able to contact her once again: Ardeshir Hosseinpour was a Khatami sympathizer, she explains to us, but she immediately says that he had nothing against Ahmadinejad, of course…. The day before his death, he had flown “home” from Isfahan. He had eaten nothing on the airplane: he was so picky… “he had many enemies." "What kind of enemies?” We are insistent. “Where did he die exactly?” We deluge her with questions: “Being his wife, did you get access to the results of the autopsy? Did you have the possibility to ask for more in-depth explanations for his death?” It's useless. “Nourizadeh is a crazy person,” she insists; her husband didn’t even know him, he definitely didn’t want to leave Iran and never ever e-mailed him. “ How can we sue that liar?” she ask us. She vehemently rejects the possibility that Ardeshir had another e-mail address in addition to the one that we are using. However, Il Venerdì can reveal that the e-mail address which Nourizadeh used to contact him with really does exist, it is just ‘dormant.’ It hasn't been used in a while. Nevertheless, once again it is useless to insist. “I think that I can trust no one," she writes. That is the last time we hear from her.