In a Washington Examiner op-ed published on April 23, I told the story of Omid Kokabee, a young Iranian physicist who was arrested in Tehran on his way to the University of Texas in Austin in 2011, and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of "communicating with a hostile government (meaning the United States)" and receiving illegitimate funds. In a letter from prison, Kokabee wrote that the actual reason for his arrest was his refusal to work on Iran's secret military program on laser enrichment of uranium.
On May 10, two weeks after publication of the Examiner op-ed, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who was a key participant in the nuclear negotiations in Lausanne and Vienna, had a meeting with the lawyer and sister of Omid Kokabee. Mr. Salehi offered his help. He suggested that Kokabee's lawyer prepare a letter asking for pardon, addressed to the intelligence services of Iran. Such a letter was promptly delivered to Salehi's office.
Mr. Salehi, however, never delivered on his promise. Kokabee's name was absent from the list of 900+ prisoners pardoned by the Iran's Supreme Leader on July 16, two days after the nuclear agreement was signed.
Kokabee's prison conditions have worsened. Naturally, this raises the question about the game played by the top Iranian official in the midst of the critical nuclear negotiations with the West. (Salehi was Iran's foreign minister before being appointed the head of the AEOI in 2013.)
Salehi's role in nuclear negotiations was to discuss technical aspects of the deal with his U.S. counterpart, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Perhaps Salehi was informed about the op-ed that mentioned the role of his organization in the imprisonment of Kokabee. He may have tried to demonstrate openness and goodwill by helping the young scientist, but failed to convince Iranian hardliners.
Another possibility is that Salehi acted on Iran's concern that the development of alternative methods of uranium enrichment by the AEOI would be brought up during the final stage of the negotiations in Vienna. He arranged the meeting and offered his help with the purpose of silencing supporters of Kokabee who spoke openly about the connection between Kokabee's imprisonment and the secret military nuclear program at the AEOI.
Whatever the truth is, these recent developments suggest that the nuclear deal's key Iranian negotiator either has no power with Iranian hardliners or is someone whose words cannot be trusted. They also fuel doubts that the Iranian side will follow through with its obligations under the nuclear deal.Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor of physics at the City University of New York and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.