How SPND is at the heart of Iran's Novichok research - Part II
In this post we're continuing our deep dive into Iran's research on novel chemical weapons, which we think is being spearheaded by SPND. You can read the first part of this work here. In that article, we revealed that Iran's internationally-certified chemical weapons research laboratory, the DCRL, is co-located with and probably controlled by an SPND entity, the Shahid Meisami Research Group.
In this article, we pinpoint the person responsible for Iran's work on novel chemical weapons - and his close ties to SPND.
The man behind Iran's novichok work
Dr Mehran Babri (مهران ببری, ID: 0050111078) is one of Iran's foremost experts on the science of chemical weapons. With more than 25 years of experience in chemistry, he's an expert in gas chromotograph mass spectrometry - an extremely precise means of measuring chemical compounds, and of detecting the presence of chemical weapon agents in environmental samples. Babri's published research includes work on the detection of V-series nerve agents (such as VX), mustard gas and ricin, ostensibly for the purposes of enhancing defensive capabilities against these compounds. He's also an author on every single DCRL research paper that we've seen, indicating his high status in that institution.
This guy literally wrote the book on chemical weapons - or at least translated it. Babri edited the Farsi version of one of the key reference books in chemical-biological weapon (CBW) defence, the Jane's Guide. Here's the cover of this book with our annotations:
Take a look at his affiliations as they're printed on that cover. Babri's connections to Malek Ashtar University (دانشگاه صنعتی مالک اشتر) and the Defence Industries Organization (سازمان صنایع دفاعی) - both institutions that are run by Iran's Ministry of Defence - are patently clear from that book cover. The book cover neatly illustrates that Babri is deeply ensconced in Iran's military CBW-related milieu.
What Babri has kept secret, until, now are his connections to SPND. We've found an obscure book that Babri worked on in 2015: a translated version of a US government study on improving efficiency in chemical research. The substance of the book is uninteresting, but the publisher's name is not: Sepand Ghalam. That's SPND's in-house publishing arm, headed by SPND biologist Dr Saeed Toghyani Khorasgani (سعید طغیانی خوراسگانی).
That means that as of 2015, Babri was literally on the SPND payroll. We suspect that he's continued to keep close connections with SPND, along with his co-translator on that book and long-time colleague, Parviz Gharibpanah (پرویز غریب پناه) - who's now employed as an analytical chemist at Shahid Meisami, the SPND-linked CBW research entity.
Undermining the OPCW
Where this all gets really worrisome is the fact that Mehran Babri is one of Iran's technical delegates to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body charged with verifying states' adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Here's a picture of Babri at the OPCW in 2014, alongside a mysterious colleague, Sohrab Mirabi
A little web searching shows that Babri is deeply entrenched in OPCW activities. He's been representing Iran at the OPCW since 2007, in a specialist part of the organization called the OPCW Validation Group, where Babri acts as an expert member in gas chromotography mass spectrometry. The Validation Group is the part of the OPCW that maintains an authoritative database of samples of chemical warfare agents and their precursors, and uses various methods to check field samples against this reference. As of May 2018, Babri was still part of this group, according to OPCW documents.
We think that Babri is SPND's mole inside the OPCW. Or if you like a different animal metaphor, the SPND fox in the OPCW henhouse.
Why would SPND put one of its officials inside the OPCW? First, to stay on top of the monitoring capabilities of the OPCW in order to assure the security and secrecy of Iran's own CW-related research. And second, to get access to reference samples of novel chemical agents like novichok. These efforts are reflective of a broader strategy that the Iranian government has to put moles inside expert groups of other international organizations dedicated to non-proliferation, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) as we wrote about back in 2014.
And Babri isn't the only Iranian working with the OPCW who looks rather like a mole. Since 2014, he's been joined in the OPCW's Validation Group by Mohammad Taghi Naseri (محمدتقی ناصری), another Iranian expert in mass spectrometry. Naseri is cut from exactly the same cloth as Babri: indeed, he's a colleague of Babri's from the SPND-linked Defence Chemical Research Laboratory, and was a co-author of Babri's research work on novichoks.
Of course, it wouldn't be a true SPND venture without someone trying to make some money. And Mehran Babri is no exception!
From reviewing business records, we've discovered that Babri is a director of a company called Kimia Shangarf Pars (شرکت پژوهشی کیمیا شنگرف پارس), a commercial outfit which provides analytical services and equipment to the chemical industry. Clearly, this is an attempt by Babri to generate income out of the expertise and connections that he's developed while working for MODAFL.
Of course, Kimia Shangarf Pars' product line includes gas chromotograph mass spectrometers, the device used by OPCW laboratories to measure chemical samples. And we suspect that Kimia Shangarf Pars is the exclusive supplier of these devices to Iran's own OPCW lab, the Defence Chemical Research Laboratory. This way, Babri can get a royalty out of the work that Iran is nominally doing for international non-proliferation efforts.
We hope that any other customers that Kimia Shangarf Pars might have are aware that a portion of every rial they spend goes into Babri's own pockets.
We know that this is a bit of a tangled web. So, to recap:
- Iran is doing research on novichok chemical agents, and producing small quantities of these agents.
- This work is being undertaken at a facility - the Defence Chemical Research Laboratory - which is closely linked to SPND, and is co-located with an organization that was previously owned by SPND (and might still be part of SPND).
- The man responsible for this work, Mehran Babri, has previously been employed by SPND, and remains closely tied to SPND (while earning a bit on the side through his company, Kimia Shangarf Pars).
- Mehran Babri is probably acting as a mole for SPND inside the OPCW.
None of this is good news. We hope that the OPCW is aware of these developments, and takes measures to stop Iran's undermining of global efforts against chemical weapon proliferation.