Iranians, Bioweapons in Mind, Lure Needy Ex-Soviet Scientists
By JUDITH MILLER with WILLIAM J. BROAD
OSCOW -- Iran is scouring the former Soviet Union to hire scientists who
once worked in
laboratories tied to Moscow's vast germ warfare program and has succeeded in recruiting some of
them to take jobs in Teheran, according to Russian scientists and American officials.
Iranian officials who report
directly to the leadership of the Islamic state have approached dozens
scientists who once made germ weapons, offering as much as $5,000 a month to people who earn far
less than that a year in the increasingly chaotic Russian economy.
Russian scientists say that
most of these entreaties have been rebuffed. But they acknowledge that
five of their colleagues have gone to work in Iran in recent years. Others have accepted contracts that
allow them to continue living in Russia while conducting research for Tehran, the scientists said.
In interviews in Russia and
neighboring Kazakhstan, more than a dozen former germ warriors reported
contacts with Iran, and two said they had been asked specifically to help Tehran make biological
weapons. American officials say that many more Russian scientists have revealed such contacts and
believe Iran is developing a germ arsenal.
Iran has powerful reasons
to want such weapons and even expressed interest in acquiring them a decade
ago. Most Iranians believe that Iraq used biological, as well as chemical, weapons in the Iran-Iraq war
in the 1980's, and many countries in the region, including Israel, Syria and Iraq, are suspected of having
Gholamhossein Dehghani, counselor
to Iran's mission to the United Nations, said that many foreign
scientists worked in his country, but were doing only peaceful research. He also stressed that Iran had
ratified a 1972 international treaty banning germ warfare. He said he "categorically rejected" the claim
that Iran is hiring Russian biologists to work on germ warfare. "We do not believe that having such
weapons increases our security."
Other Iranian officials have
said Iran's research is being conducted for purely peaceful purposes. But
veterans of the Soviet and American germ programs dismiss such claims.
"It's often hard to distinguish
between a drug and a weapon, or between offensive or defensive
research," said Lev Sandakhchiev, the director of the state laboratory known as Vector, which made
deadly viruses for weapons in Soviet times. "What counts is intent. And that complicates trust."
American officials say Tehran's
recruiting successes are troubling because they suggest that the people
who were crucial to the once-secret Soviet germ weapons program, which at its height employed some
70,000 scientists and technicians, are in danger of being lured away by anyone with enough influence or
cash, including rogue states and even terrorists.
An important figure in the
Iranian buying network, Russian scientists and western officials say, is
Rezayat, an English-speaking pharmacologist in Tehran who works directly for Iranian President
Mohammad Khatami as a "scientific adviser," according to his business card, which was provided by a
Russians approached by the
Iranians say the recruitment style alone raises suspicions. Visiting
delegations, they said, are sometimes led by Iranian clerics, who wield ultimate power in Iran's
theocracy, and other nonscientists who are studiously ambiguous about what, precisely, they want the
Russian scientists to do.
Moreover, the Iranians on
other occasions have shown particular interest in learning about microbes
can be used in war to destroy or protect crops, as well as genetic engineering techniques that are vital
both to legitimate research and to making deadly germs for which there may be no antidotes.
American officials assert
that Tehran's biowarfare program may have already turned some germs and
toxins into weapons, but they have scant information on Iran's progress. There is direct evidence, the
officials said, that Russia has significantly improved Iran's missile and nuclear capabilities, but the
value of Russian assistance to biological programs is less clear.
"Outside assistance is both
important and difficult to prevent, given the dual-use nature of the materials
and equipment being sought," the CIA said recently in a report on Iran and its biological weapons
To counter recruiting efforts
by Iranians and others, the United States has quietly launched an effort
become the largest and best-funded competitor for the allegiance of Russia's former germ warriors.
Washington is sponsoring scientist-to-scientist exchanges, joint research projects, and programs to
convert laboratories and institutes once associated with the Soviet germ program to civilian use.
Starting with a modest base
of less than $10 million dollars, the United States expects to spend at
double that sum next year, trying to keep Russian scientists gainfully and peaceably employed at home
and the countering efforts not only of Iran, but also of North Korea, Syria, and China to lure biological
talent and technology to their countries.
"This is a high-stakes game
to win the hearts and minds of Russia's best scientists, who are dangerous
simply because of what they know," said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who recently visited former Russian
weapons sites now engaged in peaceful research.
Russian scientists who have
been courted by Iran describe what amounts to a fairly predictable
recruiting pattern. First, they say, there is a call, sometimes from a Russian colleague, or a faxed letter
from an Iranian scientist that proposes a visit. Then there are initial discussions of vague scientific
cooperation and hints of large sums of money.
At subsequent sessions or
in follow-up calls, letters and faxes, specific invitations to visit Iran
issued, and the Iranians begin discussing their needs more bluntly. Often, they said, the weapons question
is raised through hints and implication.
Shortly after the Persian
Gulf war, Russian scientists said, Iran attempted to recruit Russian biological
talent from leading germ laboratories. The effort largely failed, the scientists said, and Rezayat and other
Iranian agents turned their attention to smaller institutes.
In an interview, Gennadi
Lepyoshkin, the former director of Stepnogorsk, a sprawling germ weapons
plant in Kazakhstan, said that he had been approached in 1991 by Iranian middle men who presented
themselves as private entrepreneurs interested in establishing commercial contacts. "But their proposals
were such that we immediately declined and ceased contact with them," said Lepyoshkin, whose plant
once specialized in developing and producing anthrax weapons.
Scientists say the Iranians'
1997 visit to the All-Russian Institute of Phytopathology in Golitsino,
is about 30 miles west of Moscow, was typical of approaches to smaller institutes involved in the
Soviet germ program.
Under communism, the institute
made pathogens that would kill crops, thus starving their enemies. But
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has struggled to do purely peaceful research. In the past seven
years, its staff has dropped from 1200 to 276, and employees are paid only intermittently.
Despite the hard times, the
institute has become a leader in pesticide research and in transgenic plants,
whose genes are manipulated to resist certain herbicides, insects and diseases.
About a year ago, one of
its scientists bumped into an Iranian while visiting a Moscow-based
laboratory. The man was Rezayat, and his business card described him as the director of Tehran
Medical Sciences University's pharmacology department and also as a scientific adviser to the Office of
Scientific and Industrial Studies of Presidency.
"Rezayat seemed to have visited
most labs and institutes in the area," recalled the Russian scientist,
invited him to come to Golitsino and meet his colleagues. Eventually, a five-man Iranian delegation
made the trip and met, among others, Yuri Spiridonov, a crop expert who is now head of the herbicide
The Iranians expressed great
interest in scientific exchanges between Russia and Iran, according to
He told the Iranians he had
no objection in principle to such collaboration. But the delegation made
Spiridonov nervous. For one thing, he said, only half of the Iranians were scientists. "The others just sat
their with their hands folded and said nothing," he said.
In addition, he said, they
asked "troubling" questions about substances related to biological warfare.
Spiridonov declined to elaborate.
"These were not scientific questions," he recounted 18 months later in an interview in that same office.
Wary of his guests' intentions
and fearful of endangering his growing ties to Western scientists and
companies, Spiridonov declined invitations to visit Tehran or to discuss his research in any detail. But
three of the institute's other scientists did visit Tehran, and invitations keep coming -- including another
Rezayat, reached by phone
in Moscow on Sunday and asked about allegations that he was helping to
recruit Russian scientists for germ warfare, said he could say nothing without Tehran's approval. He
added that such claims were both common and spurious. He promised to seek permission. On Monday,
his assistant said that Rezayat was no longer in Russia.
Western officials identify
Rezayat as a key official in the biology branch of an Iranian office that
covertly shops for talent and technology involving nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It also has
responsibilities for public health.
That office, said Ahmad Hashim,
a Middle East expert who is a consultant for the U.S. government, is
well known for its relentless pursuit of expertise and technology in deadly weaponry, and not just in
One of the scientists Rezayat
courted last year was Valery Lipkin, a biochemist and deputy head of the
Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute.
The institute, built with
Soviet Ministry of Defense funds, used to do research on vaccines and
biological toxins. Though it is struggling financially, it still has valuable assets, including a laboratory
where advanced vaccines and other biological agents not designed for military use are tested on
In the summer of 1997, Lipkin
met in the institute's branch in Pushchino, about an hour outside of
Moscow, with a six-man Iranian delegation that included Rezayat.
The Iranians seemed to defer to a senior cleric in a black turban and flowing robe, the Russians said.
His name was Mahmoud Hosseini
and his business card in Russian identified him as the general
secretary of the Iranian Society's Office of Scientific-Technical Cooperation with the Russian
Federation, based in Tehran. The Iranian embassy in Moscow said that Hosseini was a diplomat who
held the title of first secretary for Economic Affairs.
The meeting went well, Lipkin
said in an interview at his sprawling Moscow headquarters, though some
things struck him as odd.
He said the mullah, though
well educated, was not a scientist. And though the Iranians spoke of possible
exchanges of students and technology and seemed willing to pay handsomely for them, the delegation
was vague about what it wanted.
"One thing they repeatedly
asked about," said Sergei Feofanov, Lipkin's deputy, "was human genetic
In germ weaponry, the prospect
of targeting human genes is the most chilling possibility of all, military
experts agree. In theory, genetic engineering could produce ethnic weapons that kill or cripple
selectively by race and nationality. Such developments, if they are possible, would be years away.
Over the next 18 months,
the Iranians made three visits to the Shemyakin institute, Lipkin said.
never responded to his offer to train Iranian students in Russia. Instead, they bombarded the institute with
invitations to younger researchers, asking them to come to Tehran for a year or longer to teach genetic
engineering and other advanced techniques.
There was also a personal
invitation faxed to Lipkin from Abbas Keshavarz, deputy chief of a research
organization in Iran's Agriculture Ministry. It invited him to visit Iran to discuss possible "future
collaboration." A copy was sent to Rezayat's office.
"I didn't want to discuss weapons," said Lipkin.
"So I kept pressing them,
'What will I do in Tehran? What is my program?"' Lipkin said. "But they
not tell me. And that made me nervous. For while they were cautious here, had I gone there, I think they
would have raised weapons and other inappropriate topics."
Lipkin said that before refusing
the offer, he had sought advice from a friend at the Russian Ministry of
Science, who warned him that an Iranian visa in Lipkin's Russian passport would not enhance his
prospects of cooperation with American scientists -- especially if the trip was sponsored by Rezayat.
Iran has succeeded in attracting
several Russian biologists to Tehran, said colleagues who, in recent
interviews, named them. One is said to be Valeri Bakayev, a senior biologist at the Institute of Medical
Biotechnology in Moscow who accepted a teaching post in Iran more than seven years ago, one
colleague said. A spokesman for the Moscow institute said she had no idea where Bakayev had gone
after leaving his post.
Another scientist said that
Vladimir Rishinski, an expert at the Institute of Molecular Biology, recently
took a second leave-of-absence to go to Iran for two months of teaching. His institute, which a former
senior Soviet official said conducted research in biological weapons, said he was "on leave" for an
"extended vacation," that did not involve Iran. But his mother, reached by phone, said her son was in fact
Another Russian scientist
said that during a visit to Tehran last year he encountered three former
colleagues from the Institute of Biological Protection in Moldova who had already been in Tehran for
about six months. They described the working conditions they had left behind in Moldova.
"They told me their institute
had neither heat nor electricity, never mind money for salaries or research,"
the scientist recalled. "Russian scientists may not trust or like Iranians," he added. "But these are not
love matches. They are marriages of convenience, and often, of necessity."
It is now known that the
Soviet Union built the most pestilential biological arsenal of all time.
program's peak, Russian and Western experts say, scientists at scores of sites studied some 50
biological agents and prepared a dozen or so for war. Bombers and intercontinental missiles were ready
to disseminate hundreds of tons of smallpox, plague and anthrax, enough to wipe out entire nations.
Many of these biological
agents were developed and tested at Vector, formally the State Research
Center of Virology and Biotechnology, which made deadly viruses in Siberia; the State Research Center
for Applied Microbiology, or Obolensk, near Moscow, where lethal bacteria were perfected and
Stepnogorsk, a sprawling germ factory in Kazakhstan, which specialized in deadly anthrax.
This proud scientific elite
was part of a culture that had a deep historic distrust of Islamic regimes,
which threatened to undermine the Soviet empire. Thus, any current Iranian successes are all the more
Since the collapse of Soviet
Communism, these scientific centers, as well as far smaller ones, have
their operating budgets slashed and research money disappear. But institute directors say they have
fought to keep their top scientific talent intact, dismissing junior scientists and technical workers instead.
Yet, even top scientists have been tempted to sell their expertise.
Igor Domaradskij, a founder
of the main Soviet program to make germ weapons, lives in a spacious
apartment in a fashionable part of Moscow, a reminder of the special privileges and status he once
enjoyed as director of the anti-plague institutes in Irkutsk and Rostov-on-Don and later, a key figure at
But his doorbell consists
of two wires that must be twisted together to ring, and his preoccupation
earning a living is a theme of the "The Troublemaker," his memoir of his years as a germ warrior.
Domaradskij, 73, said he
lives off his pension and his savings. And he is fortunate in having a
and e-mail that connect him to scientists outside Russia. But he disclosed in his book that he was so
desperate for work in 1992 that he offered his services to China, Russia's longtime rival, as well as to
the Kalmyk Republic inside Russia. Neither responded, he said.
Russia's economic chaos,
which worsened with the collapse last August of the ruble, has taken a
toll on nearly all of the institutes once lavishly funded by the biological bureaucracy.
Overall, Obolensk, one of
the top former centers, lost 54 percent of its staff between 1990 and 1996
only 28 percent of its top scientists, according to the institute's figures.
Prospects may seem better
almost anywhere else to the scientists at institute after institute, who
wrapped in layers of sweaters in unheated buildings and get no pay for months on end.
"Like everyone else, we're
just trying to survive," said Eugeniy A. Nepoklonov, 42, the director of
Narvac, an animal vaccine company founded in 1990 which employs some 50 scientists, many from the
former weapons program.
Narvac, with $3 million in
total sales, is testing a vaccine against hog cholera that would be Russia's
first genetically-engineered animal vaccine. The laboratory has great hopes for the product, if it can
survive Russia's economic turmoil.
The Russian government has sent mixed signals about the Iranian overtures.
In May of 1997, Moscow went
so far as to sponsor a biotechnology trade fair in Tehran. More than 100
leading biologists from Russian institutes that once were part of the germ-warfare program, including
Vector and Obolensk, the two most prominent facilities, participated as guests of the Islamic republic.
And President Boris Yeltsin
has kept in senior civilian biotechnology posts several key military figures
from the old Soviet germ program, some of whom are openly hostile to the growing cooperation between
American and Russian scientists.
Moscow has embraced the Clinton
Administration's programs to forge closer ties between American and
Russian scientists even as it allows some institutes to strike commercial deals with Iran.
Vector for example, has been
permitted to sell diagnostic kits for hepatitis to Iran. But the institute
refused Iranian requests for broader technological cooperation or the exchange of dangerous strains,
according to American officials and Sandakhchiev, Vector's head.
"There is a very fine line
between good and bad dealings," he said, "which is why I am concerned about
the challenge of bioterrorism."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company