Under the radar: How Iran’s Kurds helped expose key nuke facility

As the most active of Kurdish armed resistance groups in Iran, PDKI is particularly well poised to play a strategic role as an internal counterbalance to Iran’s unchecked regional aspirations.

KURDISH MEMBERS of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan hike through the mountains from Iraq to Iran. (photo credit: COURTESY ZACH HUFF)
KURDISH MEMBERS of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan hike through the mountains from Iraq to Iran.
(photo credit: COURTESY ZACH HUFF)
Iranian Kurdish separatists played a key role in providing intelligence on the regime’s Arak nuclear complex, Iran’s only plutonium and heavy water production facility, according to an Iran Press TV feature. This article is the first to highlight the virtually unknown affair.
Though the documentary was released in 2013, the Press TV website pulled it and five-year-old copies on YouTube and Vimeo went long unnoticed, racking up a mere 600 views, combined. The paltry view count betrays the notability of the Kurds’ apparent accomplishment and sacrifice in shedding light on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The gripping tale also offers a prescient reminder why the West must back the Iranian Kurds’ political and military resistance, which is currently on an upswing of activity within the regime.
“Aperture: A Time to Betray” is a two-part special that casts the alleged Kurdish informant, Semco Khelghati, as the main antagonist. Khelghati was arrested in 2009 on espionage charges for feeding intelligence on Arak’s operations to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) – information that the regime suspects was passed on to CIA and Mossad operatives in Iraqi Kurdistan. Also known as IR-40, Arak was a centerpiece of Iran’s planned nuclear weapons program.
A nuclear sciences and metallurgy graduate of Sharif University of Technology, one of Iran’s most prestigious institutions, Khelghati was drafted to the Iranian navy for two months, before joining Iran’s atomic energy organization.
Starting in mid-2004, Khelghati worked as a technician and inspector during the construction process in two sectors of Arak, spending 18 months in the heavy water production section until late 2005, before working an additional 30 months in the heavy water nuclear reactor.
 Shortly before his military service was over, Khelghati told a cousin that he wanted a contact with the PDKI. Khelghati then connected with a man named “Cheko,” offering him information about the nuclear program. “Checko”’s real name is Abdulrahman Rahimi, head of PDKI’s intelligence, and was said to have passed the information solely to PDKI’s chairman, Mustafa Hijri. The documentary then says, “Iranian officials believe the leaked info was transferred to CIA and Mossad operatives in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
“Deceived by Western propaganda that Iran was making nuclear bombs, Khelghati decided to leak secret information about the reactor,” the Press TV narrator explains. Khelghati then adds that it was due to his “negative attitude toward the government,” that his motivation was “to make the government weak and prevent it from obtaining new technologies.”
The narrator and choreographed witness testimonies frame Arak’s purposes as solely benign, such as for cancer and agricultural research. Yet, assessments from the US, UN, nuclear watchdog agencies, and even Russia, all sounded the alarm on the real potential and purpose of Arak, now known to the world.
At the time, Arak was reportedly one of the most heavily-defended of Iran’s nuclear sites, with more than 50 anti-aircraft batteries and three surface-to-air missile sites – compared with just one missile battery for Fordow, which operates deep inside a mountain. If Arak was indeed always peaceful, it was certainly one of the most top-secret and well-defended cancer research centers in the world. Russian intelligence also reportedly observed rocket research and development at Arak.
Heavy water production began at the site in mid-2006, and the heavy water reactor came online in 2009. Heavy water is produced to moderate and cool a reactor – an optimal configuration for weapons-grade plutonium production, when compared to a light water moderated reactor. Weapons-grade uranium, on the other hand, is enriched in a gas centrifuge enrichment plant, such as that at Natanz.
At peak capacity, Arak would have been able to produce plutonium sufficient for one bomb per year.
Even as Iran downplays Arak in the feature, Press TV didn’t hide Khelghati’s crucial role during his time there nor the secret information he was privy to. Khelghati recalled that he was even the one to announce to the team that heavy water was produced for the first time, one late summer night in 2006. Then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad arrived for a high-profile ceremony two weeks later.
During his 18 months at the heavy water side, “I disclosed about its plan, plans of different units, and companies manufacturing equipment for the site,” Khelghati confesses.
“I was transferred to the heavy water reactor for 2.5 years, and worked in the Tehran office, not on the site,” he continued. Khelghati’s critical role was to inspect equipment manufactured by different companies before it was sent for installation at the Arak project. He provided “Information about different sections... almost everything about the site.”
Khelghati says Rahimi first asked irrelevant questions, about the number of centrifuges and percentage of enrichment, aspects having nothing to do with the Arak reactor.
It was the summer of 2009, three or four months before arrest, when more “technical questions” came from Rahimi about specific components, their manufacturers, construction progress, and information on staff and high-profile personnel. This flow of details continued up until his arrest on charges of espionage, three years after Arak’s nuclear site became operational.
By late 2013, the P5+1 world powers behind the JCPOA nuclear deal were demanding the dismantling of the Arak reactor. A sticking point in final negotiations, Iran finally agreed to cap the planned production capacity, while Western powers advised on how to reconfigure the site to not be capable of creating weapons-grade plutonium. Iran last year contracted a Chinese firm to do so and announced in June that the construction will soon commence. Arak’s plutonium facility never went online.
The prevailing understanding has been that a spokesman for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) had been the first to reveal Arak’s existence in 2002 — but we now know that PDKI may have acted as a key intelligence source on Arak’s operations.
PDKI demurred when reached for comment, as the party maintains a policy of generally not acknowledging any Iranian case against alleged party members or collaborators. Any victory-lap statement or confirmation of such activities would only offer Iran leverage to more gravely punish those who have been arrested. Although this report relies on Iranian narratives, perhaps years from now we will learn the full truth about the extent of what Iran’s Kurds have revealed – and potentially prevented.
Ahead of the very real possibility that inspectors lose their view into Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal – which Iran could walk from at any time – the West must be prepared to pivot to unconventional means to monitor the regime’s furtive behavior and will require capable partners on the inside in order to do so.
This is but one compelling reason why the US, Israel and Sunni Arab allies must back the pro-democratic, secular PDKI and groups like it. As the most active of Kurdish armed resistance groups in Iran, PDKI is particularly well poised to play a strategic role as an internal counterbalance to Iran’s unchecked regional aspirations.
As for Khelghati’s fate, the story concludes by noting that his death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment. It was further commuted to 15 years in prison, and the regime was weighing a pardon for “his scientific capacity and pledge to commit his knowledge to his country.”
 The documentary doesn’t shed light on how Khelghati was caught, nor do we know how he was treated during detention – nor what Khelghati received in exchange for recanting and participating in this feature production.
The writer is a Kurdish affairs expert and field researcher for the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.