By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Communications from the 1990s suggest Iran's current foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, had knowledge of a program to procure goods for an alleged clandestine nuclear program when he was head of a university, a U.S. nuclear expert said on Tuesday.
David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said among 1,600 telexes and other material he has obtained and is studying was a letter signed by Salehi as head of Sharif University in 1991.
The letter served as an end-user guarantee to a European supplier of materials that could have a dual purpose for use in a nuclear program. Tehran-based Sharif University, however, was acting essentially as a front for Iran's military procurement network, Albright said.
"Salehi knew about or was involved in efforts to create an alleged parallel military nuclear program that is of great interest to the IAEA now," Albright told Reuters, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog.
"And the intention of that program was probably to make nuclear weapons, including producing highly enriched uranium," Albright said.
While senior IAEA officials have in the past told Reuters they suspected Salehi and Sharif University played a role in such procurement activities, the telexes appear to be the first public evidence supporting those suspicions.
ISIS planned to publish its findings and some of the documents about procurement activities of Iran's Physics Research Center in the late 1980s and early 1990s on its website this week.
A spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission said Salehi had never been involved in any illicit or illegal activity. "We believe that publishing these type of fabricated stories are an attempt to foil the upcoming negotiation," the spokesman said.
The findings come as Iran and the IAEA ended two days of talks and were to meet again next week, just days before negotiations between Iran and world powers in Baghdad.
The West is concerned Iran's nuclear program may be aimed at developing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said Iran halted its efforts to construct a nuclear device in the fall of 2003, while continuing with research and uranium enrichment.
PHYSICS RESEARCH CENTER
The IAEA in its November 2011 report said the Physics Research Center was established at Lavizan, a complex near a military installation in Tehran. It was completely razed in late 2003 and early 2004.
The IAEA has been looking into the Physics Research Center, which acted as an umbrella organization under Iran's defense ministry and coordinated various nuclear activities.
Senior IAEA officials have told Reuters the agency has known for many years that Salehi and Sharif University played a central role in Iran's illicit nuclear-technology procurement activities while Salehi was head of the university in the 1990s.
ISIS said the Physics Research Center had used Sharif University "as a front" for buying certain goods overseas and hid "the true end use from overseas suppliers by providing an educational rationale for the purchases."
The telexes showed that while the initial order came from the university's purchasing department, when finalizing payments, the Physics Research Center and its chief, Sayyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh, appeared in financial-related telexes as the responsible party.
ISIS said it has a copy of a letter signed by Salehi as head of Sharif University in 1991 that, along with associated telexes, demonstrated he was aware of the Physics Research Center purchases of dual-use goods.
ISIS withheld the name of the company and the type of goods.
The letter certified that the goods would be used for university teaching or research and not for making weapons or ammunition.
One telex said Shahmoradi received from Sharif University the "full authority to make final decision" on purchasing, ISIS said, so "Salehi, as head of the university, must have granted that authority to Shahmoradi."
ISIS also linked Salehi to the Physics Research Center by saying that when he was head of the university two packages could not be delivered to Shahmoradi at the university and the deliverer was told to redeliver them to the purchasing manager at the university or Salehi.
And telexes implied Salehi knew of the procurement of whole body counters, used to measure radiation, and had a connection to Shahmoradi, ISIS said.
(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau; editing by Todd Eastham)