Maj. General Mohsen Rezai founded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the early days of the revolution, upon the personal orders of Ayatollah Khomeini.
While he relinquished control of the IRGC in 1997, he remains one of the regime’s most influential leaders. A “principalist,” who is considered a revolutionary purist, Rezai has occasionally shown a more pragmatic bent.
He regularly boasts of the Iranian regime’s military power, and issues threats to all who would challenge the regime that seem to get dismissed in the Western media.
Last week, when he vowed to “level Tel Aviv to the ground,” was no exception.
He was speaking in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned at the Munich Security Conference last week that Israel would “act against Iran itself” if Iran continued to invade Israeli air space, as they did when they sent a drone into Israel from an air base in Syria.
And yet, outside of the Israeli media, only the Daily Mail paid much attention to Rezai’s threats.
But make no mistake about it: General Rezai understands the cold calculus of nuclear deterrence, and he was not making an idle threat.
His message was crystal clear: Iran considers itself to be a nuclear weapons-capable state. And he speaks from direct, personal knowledge since he was himself in charge of Iran’s nuclear weapons program for over a decade.
I know this because his son defected to the United States at the age of 23 in 1999, and wound up staying with me for several months, learning English in my basement by watching Jackie Chan movies. Many of the stories he told me about his father I related in a 2005 book, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
Here is just one of them, which explains why I am confident that General Rezai was not making an idle threat to Israel last week. It involves a January 1993 trip Rezai made to China and North Korea with a 50-man military delegation, as well as his then teenage son.
For nearly an entire week, the North Koreans escorted Rezai and his delegation to military bases all over the country. They split them into two groups. Rezai and the men who had already taken the tour plunged directly into negotiations. His deputy, Mohammad Baqr Zolqadr, the dark-skinned fanatic who had just come back from training Osama bin Laden’s terrorists in Sudan, led the second group, including his boss’s son.
Young Ahmad marveled when they were taken to a top secret airbase, carved out of the rock inside a mountain. As they entered, their North Korean hosts pointed out the thickness of the special blast doors, designed to withstand a direct nuclear hit. Deep inside the mountain they came to a huge cavern, where two dozen aircraft were parked like ducks in a row, nestled into each other’s wings. In separate store rooms carved out of the rock, the North Koreans had stockpiled missiles, fuel, and all the necessary maintenance equipment. They managed the entire complex from a modern control room, where flight officers surveyed the buried runway through a giant glass window, a bit like the control tower on an aircraft carrier. But most amazing of all was the underground runway, pitched at a steep upward slant. As the jets cycled up their engines, the jetwash was deflected by a blast wall and vented through a series of long tunnels to the surface to reduce the heat signature. The jets hurtled upwards using a catapult, similar to an aircraft carrier. At the end of the runway, doors opened onto the sky. The jets shot out, burner cans lit, like a missile emerging from a launch tube buried halfway up the mountainside.
At one missile test range the elder Rezai visited, Iranian engineers were working side by side with the North Koreans, preparing telemetry equipment for a test. They were working to extend the range of the missile known in the West as the No-Dong… The original specifications called for a Circular Error Probable (CEP) from between 1,500 to 4,000 meters, an unheard of margin of error in the West. This meant that just half of the missiles would fall within 1,500 to 4,000 meters of a target area. The key was making sure the new missile could carry a warhead large enough for the Chinese bomb design Iran is believed to have purchased from Dr. A.Q. Khan. Given the density of Israel’s population, it didn’t much matter where it fell.
That missile, later known as the Shahab-3, was designed to be able to hit Israel.
Toward the end of the week-long visit, the elder Rezai was summoned to meet the Great Leader himself, the grandfather of “little rocket man,” Kim Jong Il.
Rezai met with Kim Il Sung alone. No aides, no note-takers, not even his own translator were allowed in the room in the Great Leader’s palace. Just the two of them, and Kim’s personal interpreter.
The aging Kim was terminally ill, although Rezai didn’t know that at the time. He still appeared robust, jovial, and keenly aware of his visitor. Look how much we have accomplished together, he said, as they reviewed work on the new joint missile project. Neither man had any doubt as to the missile’s purpose as a nuclear delivery vehicle. And that’s when Rezai told Kim about the bombs.
The stories about Iran’s attempt to purchase nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Republics were true, he said. Rafsanjani had sent buying teams a little all over the place. But there had been problems. To avoid detection, the weapons had been disassembled and transported piece by piece in separate trucks. They had put a non-professional in charge of the operation, and the results were predictable. When the bombs arrived in Tehran in late 1991 and early 1992, key parts were missing. Iran could hardly go to the Russians and ask them for assistance, since Yeltsin’s intelligence people had raised a public stink about the missing bombs. Iran needed Kim’s help to get those weapons operational. The ageing North Korean leader agreed immediately…
On the plane back to Tehran, Rezai was ecstatic. His lifelong dream of making Iran an independent nuclear power capable of defending itself against aggression—even by a superpower!—was about to come true. As he mulled over his meeting with Kim in the executive cabin of the Boeing 707, [his son] asked him how they would ever manage to ship atomic weapons from North Korea to Iran.
We don’t need to, Rezai said. We have all the parts but one. And now North Korea has agreed to supply us what we are missing….
Ahmad told me he assumed the missing bomb part was the fissile material core. But Clinton administration officials I shared this anecdote with at the time said they believed the North Koreans did not have enough fissile material or the inclination to share it, even with Iran.
Ahmad Rezai’s defection to the United States placed General Rezai in a precarious position. The young Rezai’s information proved to be so valuable to the U.S. intelligence community that they fast-tracked his application for U.S. citizenship and awarded him a passport and a new identity.
General Rezai is a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a survivor. He remains a top Godfather of the Islamic regime.
It would be unwise to sweep away as idle threats comments such as those he made last week. He knows Iran is a nuclear-weapons capable state, because he was present at the creation. With the Iran nuclear deal safely guaranteeing that Iran’s nuclear programs will not be challenged, General Rezai and other regime leaders can now brandish them as a deterrent.
These are dangerous times, indeed.