Unconfirmed reports that there was a large explosion at a Iranian nuclear site last week trace their origins back to two former Iranian intelligence officers who defected to the West, at least one of whom has been described as a “serial fabricator” by senior members of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
It has been widely reported in Western media outlets that there are unconfirmed reports that a massive explosion took place last week at Iran’s underground Fordow bunker near the religious city of Qom which may have trapped over 200 people inside and destroyed much of the nuclear equipment inside.
The Israeli-daily the Jerusalem Post traces the rumors back to Reza Kahlili, who told the newspaper in a separate interview that the alleged blast is “"the largest case of sabotage in decades."
Kahlili is a pseudonym for an individual who allegedly worked as a double agent for the CIA during the 1980’s when Kahlili was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran.
Kahlili first reported the blast in a story on World News Daily in which he cited as his sole source, Hamid Reza Zakeri, another pseudonym for a former member in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security(MOIS) who defected to the West in 2001. Zakeri, who is Kahili’s sole source for the story, in turn cited supposed contacts he has at the highest levels in Iran.
Among Zakeri’s past claims is that the Islamic Republic of Iran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was actively involved in helping al-Qaeda (AQ) plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland.
According to reports by Kenneth R. Timmerman— co-founder and Executive Director of Foundation for Democracy in Iran and a prominent Zakeri supporter— Zakeri claimed to have personally overseen two meetings between high level Iranian and AQ officials in the months before the 9/11 attack.
One such meeting Zakeri claimed to have overseen involved AQ’s then-number two and now leader Anwar al-Zawahiri traveling to Iran in January 2001 with 23 other members of AQ, 12 of whom remained in Iran following the meeting. Zakeri also claimed that a follow-up meeting saw Osama bin Laden’s eldest son, Saad bin Laden, make the trek to Iran prior to 9/11 (after 9/11 he was held in Iranian custody but ultimately escaped to Pakistan where he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2009). During this three-week trip, which took place four months before 9/11, Zakeri claims the younger bin Laden met with nearly all of Iran’s top non-elected leaders including Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, former head of the Judiciary Mohammad Yazdi, then-head of the Judiciary Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, at the time the head of Iran’s Assembly of Experts.
While noting that many of the 9/11 operatives transited Iran on their way to Afghanistan in the years prior to the attacks, the U.S. government-appointed 9/11 Commission concluded that, "we have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."
Zakeri also claims to have alerted the U.S. embassy in Baku of the impending 9/11 attacks the summer before they occurred.
Despite Zakeri presenting written documentation of the Iran-AQ meetings, the U.S. government remained unconvinced of his credibility, according to Zimmerman. In his book, Zimmerman reports that when he asked a CIA intelligence officer about Zakeri she had told him, “This man is a serial fabricator.” Another senior U.S. official Zimmerman asked about Zakeri’s supposed warning in Baku told him, “We have no record that he made any such claim. And he is a fabricator of monumental proportions.”
Zakeri didn’t have much luck convincing Germany’s legal or intelligence authorities of his authenticity either. In 2004, Zakeri insisted on testifying against Abdelghani Mzoudi, a Moroccan who was a former roommate of the lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta and was being charged in Germany with providing material aid to the 9/11 hijackers. Zakeri claimed that Mzoudi was an integral part of the 9/11 plot and had spent three months in Iran “learning to master codes,” without explaining what relevance this had to the 9/11 plot. During his testimony at the trial Zakeri readily admitted that he had never seen or spoken with Mzoudi before but said he knew of his involvement in 9/11 through a high-level contact in Iran that he remained in touch with.
In reporting on Zakeri’s testimony, Reuters noted “It was not clear that his sometimes rambling testimony had helped the prosecution case. ‘It's difficult to follow you, Mr. Zakeri,’” the Judge presiding over the case said during the testimony according to Reuters. Similarly, Deutsche Welle reported that Zakeria’s “answers to most questions were evasive and rambling,” the Judge had to repeatedly ask him to repeat himself, and “at one point after several contradictions and incomprehensible answers, [Judge] Rühle said: ‘I don't know if you are consciously being unclear.’”
The Judge further asked Germany’s foreign intelligence agency to assess the credibility of Zakeri. The answer the judge received read, in part, “The worth of his evidence is very small. Much is unverifiable and speculative."
But Zakeri did make clear in his testimony that his sources told him senior AQ and Iranian officials had met a month before the trial and decided to assassinate the defendant, Mr. Mzoudi, should he be acquitted of these charges in order to hide Iranian involvement in 9/11.
"They came to the conclusion that Mzoudi would have to be killed by a letter bomb sent from Duesseldorf or Vienna, or if he was deported, that he could then be seized," Zakeritestified.
The Judge ultimately ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict Mr. Mzoudi who was released by Germany in January 2004. To date, AQ and Iran have not made good on their alleged plan.
The White House said that the reports about an explosion at the Fordow nuclear plant “were not credible.” On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors the plant, also said it could not confirm an explosion.
Israeli officials, both named and unnamed, differed with some saying that they couldn’t confirm the report but if it was true it was a “blessing,” while other unnamed Israeli intelligence officials were reported as saying the explosion did indeed occur.
For its own part, Iran is continuing to deny that there was an explosion at the Fordow nuclear plant.
Despite this continued skepticism Reza Khalili has written a new report at WMD that marvels at how the story is “exploding around the world” and that the report “blows Iran’s nuclear program wide open."
Zakeri’s dubious record and Khalili’s biases notwithstanding, the story was widely reported in Western media outlets and elsewhere. Many sources, such as Reuters— which noted it could not confirm the reports— listed media reports as the source of the rumor but did not specify which ones.
In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, New York Times reporter Judith Miller (among others) published a host of shocking stories about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction programs, reports which Bush administration officials regularly cited in the run-up to the war as proof that Saddam was seeking nuclear weapons and possessed WMDs. Many of these reports turned out to be untrue and the New York Times subsequently admitted that Miller’s heavy reliance on Iraqi defectors was a major reason for the false reporting.
The Bush administration itself based its case against Saddam Hussein heavily on an Iraqi defector nicknamed Curveball who claimed to have worked on an WMD’s program while a member of Saddam’s regime. This turned out to be false, as Curveball admitted in 2011 saying he made up the story because he “had a problem with the Saddam regime. I wanted to get rid of him and now I had this chance."
Curveball also said he did not regret making up the story despite the 100,000 plus Iraqis that had died as a result.
“Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right. They [the Bush administration] gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that."