Two Iranian nuclear scientists fleeing to the West were turned back at Damascus airport and returned to Iran, where, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, they may have been secretly executed.
The two scientists are believed to be Ardeshir Mir-Aslani Yazdi, 49, and Hossein Eslam-Zadeh, 51
If they had made it, the United States would have had access to first-hand testimony on an important part of Iran's nuclear program to put before the International Atomic Energy Agency and to the UN Security Council in support of the charge that Tehran is in the process of building a nuclear weapon.
Since this tragic incident, the Bush administration has presented the Iranian government with a new compromise formula to break out of the deadlock over its nuclear weapons program. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Tehran sources disclose the proposal is for the International Atomic Energy Agency – IAEA, to create a special commission comprised of the European Union, the United States and a watchdog representative that will establish a permanent seat in Tehran and supervise the Iranian program at close hand. Iran will thus gain international sanction for continuing its uranium enrichment, while Washington will acquire an instrument to supervise the process and ascertain that the product is not misused for manufacturing nuclear weapons.
Yazdi received his PhD in physics in Germany. In the early 1990s, he branched out into nuclear physics after taking courses in China and North Korea. In the last two years, he also received training in Russia, ostensibly to run the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. He is married and has three children.
Eslam-Zadeh studied nuclear physics in France. At the age of 18, he was sent by the shah to France as part of the ruler's grandiose plan to build six nuclear power plants. In the end, only the Bushehr plant was built by a German company. After the 1979 Islami Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini closed down Iran’s academic institutions for two years and Eslam-Zadeh was expelled from Tehran University. Some 2,000 teachers, lecturers and professors were fired. After the Iran-Iraq war ended in the late 1980s, Khomeini's own nuclear plans began to take shape. Eslam-Zadeh was “rehabilitated” and began working for Iran's atomic energy commission on the team tasked with turning the Islamic Republic into a nuclear power.
In early August 2004, Yazdi and Eslam-Zadeh were sent to Syria to study that country's nuclear program as part of the Iranian-Syrian atomic and military cooperation accord.
Our intelligence sources report the two men intended to take the chance to defect to the West. At first, they considered seeking asylum in the US embassy in Damascus, but were put off by the heavy Syrian security force surrounding the building. Even if they gained entry, they feared they would not be allowed to leave unharmed.
Although under constant Syrian and Iranian surveillance, the two scientists secured two foreign passports under false names with the help of a Syrian middleman. Ten days ago, they suddenly hailed a taxi in the center of Damascus and asked to be taken to the international airport. But Syrian security forces intercepted the vehicle before it arrived and detained the two scientists for questioning.
It is unclear whether the two Iranians were betrayed by the seller of the passports, who was a plant, or whether he informed on them when picked up and interrogated himself. It is also possible that Yazdi and Eslam-Zadeh gave themselves away to their Iranian and Syrian “watchers.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources have learned that Iran demanded the immediate handover of the pair by Syria. President Bashar Assad gave the Iranian military aircraft sent to fetch the scientists permission to land in Damascus. They were flown to Tehran a few days ago.
Back home, they were interrogated and tortured. Several intelligence sources claim they were subsequently executed, but others say they may still be alive and held in solitary confinement.
Our sources have learned that Yazdi's wife and children were taken to a secret location in a southern Iranian city after being told the authorities were sending them to join the scientist in Damascus. The fate of the second scientist's family is unknown.
Iranian president Mohammed Khatami personally thanked Assad for surrendering the men when he visited Damascus last week.