Crocodiles, Technocrats and Commanders

Revisiting the 2011 Bidganeh explosion.

A screengrab from the Gando series showing a picture of the November 2011 explosion

If there is one thing that sanctions-hit Iran does not currently lack, it’s controversies. Ranging from high-profile corruption scandals to mysterious (or not so mysterious) drone attacks, limpet mines and radioactive warehouses, there is a cornucopia of high-drama developments competing for the world’s and the country’s media attention. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the more recent controversies inside the country was caused by, of all things, a TV series.

Enter Gando. Named after the Iranian mugger crocodile, the 30 episode series is the Islamic Republic’s answer to the era of Netflix. Swashbuckling young spies foil plots by the nation’s enemies, outsmart their foes and show the Iranian public just how awesome Iran’s intelligence services are. There is even an occasional whiff of OSINT, such as when sleuths discover a woman’s connection to US diplomats through her Instagram posts. At this point, readers’ monocles will probably pop out in shock at the suggestion the series is more than a mere private commercial enterprise.

Gando was produced by the IRGC-linked Basij Broadcasting Organization whose director, Mehdi Taeb, also happens to be the brother of Hossein Taeb, the head of IRGC intelligence. Very much in line with current IRGC branding, the series lionizes members of the country’s security services and portrays more moderate factions as corrupt elites less interested in defending their country than in securing their offsprings’ financial well-being. It comes as no surprise that the Iranian Foreign Ministry and parts of the Rouhani administration have admitted to not being big fans of the series.

While all of this would already be enough to generate controversy in Iran’s toxic domestic political environment, the series caused yet another kerfuffle in early June. This time it centered around the November 12, 2011 explosion that had obliterated the Shahid Modarres solid-fuel research facility near Bidganeh and Malard, martyred Brigadier General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam and 38 of his co-workers and, at least temporarily, killed the country’s dream of a solid-fuel SLV.

Bidganeh before and after the explosion

To this day, Iranian officials and IRGC commanders deny that Iran’s version of the Nedelin Catastrophe was anything other than a tragic workplace accident. Not so Gando, which presented a very different version of events (enable subtitles for translations of all videos).

While only being a subplot to the main story, the 90 second sequence caused a stir among the Iranian public who, for almost eight years, had been told that the country’s beloved ‘Missile Father’ had been killed in a tragic accident. Soon, the country’s journalists started pestering officials with questions about the discrepancy and received somewhat murky answers.

Esmail Kousari, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Sarollah Base: ‘I made my comments back then and I don’t have any more information right now. Go ask them. … […] Perhaps, over the course of time the news and information about the explosion got more complete and they reached that conclusion. I can’t give an exact opinion on this matter.’

Mohammad Javad Jamali Noubandegan, deputy President of the Parliament’s National Security Commission: ‘When filmmakers want to create a scenario about such an important topic they definitely have to submit the text to the Supreme National Security Council, the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC for review. Of course, it is possible that the initial conclusions about an incident differs from the conclusion reached years later after the analysis of further information. Nevertheless, the issue has to be transparent for the people and it has to be explained. However, we still have not received any new information about the explosion in Malard in 1390. The filmmakers should have explained before whether the scenario is based on facts or fictional.’

Mansur Haghighatpur, former member of the Parliament’s National Security Commission: ‘In this area, I don’t have any information on which to base an answer. But when it comes to the facts I know, I can say that the series has not distorted these facts.

Last but not least, the issue reached no other than Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was asked why, if the incident was indeed sabotage, Iran had not filed an international complaint. Zarif simply replied that ‘I don’t watch the Gando series and we don’t take steps in the international community based on TV series.’ Zarif also confirmed that he was ‘that guy’™ by mentioning he wasn’t watching television at all. Unfortunately, he didn’t mention whether this is due to his busy schedule of global diplomacy and resisting hardliner bullying or whether he simply prefers French arthouse cinema.

I think we all know the answer…

Somewhat curiously, none of the IRGC heavyweights have cared to comment on the issue so far.

The Evidence presented by Gando

With official answers somewhat lacking in clarity, it seems worthwhile to take a closer look at the information presented by Gando. In general, the scenarios of Gando are supposed to be based on reality, or at least the Iranian security establishment’s reading of it. There is little doubt that the writers of the show enjoy guidance by the IRGC and at least some access to IRGC information. When Iran’s Foreign Ministry complained about the portrayal of its actions during the Jason Rezaian affair, one of Gando’s writers replied that ‘We had the actual file on the case and we remained loyal to it.’ However, even a superficial glance at the ‘facts’ presented about the 2011 explosion reveals gaping holes.

First, there simply is no Wikileaks document describing the transfer of funds to the MEK to erase Iranian missile expertise. While the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks did offer some juicy details about Iran’s missile program back in the day, none of the documents even remotely resembles the one presented by Gando. Also, Wikileaks’ diplomatic cables were released already between early 2010 and late 2011, not in August 2012. Gando mentions that one of the MEK members who had infiltrated the site got killed during the explosion. One might expect that such an individual would stop receiving the hero treatment reserved for Iran’s martyrs. However, the list of the 39 ‘Martyrs of Authority’ has seen no changes over the last years.

While all of this strongly indicates the narrative presented by Gando is wrong, one perhaps shouldn’t discard the series’ revelation altogether. Perhaps the Iranians did find out the explosion was an act of sabotage but simply preferred to make up some stuff about Wikileaks instead of disclosing the methods and sources used to reach that conclusion on state TV.

More hints of Sabotage?

Apart from Gando, there are some further indications the explosion might have been more than an accident. In its original reporting about the incident, Time Magazine quoted an anonymous Western intelligence source who claimed the Mossad had a hand in the incident.

Then there is Moghaddam’s maverick brother, Mohammad Tehrani Moghaddam, who has previously demonstrated his willingness to talk about stuff he really shouldn’t talk about. In 2016, he presented his own version of the Bidganeh explosion: ‘’What led to the martyrdom of commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam was not an accident but a pre-planned terrorist incident. The officials will explain its various dimensions to the public when appropriate.

Moghaddam’s brother is a bit of a difficult source in terms of credibility. He clearly exaggerates at times, talks about how Imam Ali presented technical solutions to Moghaddam in his dreams and clearly doesn’t know a lot about missile or rocket technology. On the other hand, he still attends commemorative events together with top-notch IRGC powerbrokers and sometimes hangs out with Iranian missile engineers, which might give him the occasional insight.

Moghaddam’s brother is known for being close to top IRGC leaders, sometimes uncomfortably so

While the IRGC might have steadfastly claimed the explosion was an accident, or at least did so in public, other actors inside Iran’s byzantine regime were more inclined to call it sabotage. And they were equally eager to present the perpetrators with or without evidence. In August 2019, the BBC’s Persian language service aired a short documentary about Mazyar Ebrahimi. Ebrahimi, an innocent television producer, was forced by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to publicly confess that he was part of a cell assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Shortly afterwards, agents of the ministry also tried to make him admit he had a hand in the Bidganeh explosion. When IRGC interrogators arrived, they would have none of it.

Curiously enough, the number of casualties Ebrahimi’s IRGC interrogator mentioned was much higher than the 39 Martyrs officially acknowledged by the IRGC.

A Questionable Health and Safety Record

While there are some indications the explosion might have been sabotage, strong signs also point towards an accident. Enter Manuchehr Manteghi. Manteghi is a veteran member of Iran’s missile program who began his career during the Islamic Republic’s early efforts to develop ballistic missiles and ATGMs during the Iran-Iraq War (former IRGC minister Mohsen Rafiqdust once described him as the Iranian Wernher von Braun). After a brief stint as CEO of Iran Khodro, Manteghi is now back to his old passion and active in the civilian component of Iran’s space program. What makes Manteghi interesting, is not only that he worked with Moghaddam for some time but also that he is a no-nonsense technocrat. Where other officials endlessly boast about destroying the Islamic Republic’s enemies, Manteghi is more inclined to muse about the commercial potential of nanosatellites. In a 2019 TV interview, he was asked whether he knew what exactly happened in November 2011. In his answer, Manteghi put the focus on an issue very different from sabotage: workplace safety.

Manteghi’s remarks about Moghaddams setting up a new parallel organizational structure for missile development correspond neatly with the account given by IRGC Aerospace Force Deputy Majid Musavi in his sole interview.

When the range limit was set, Moghaddam chose the field of space flight, so that our path could still face forward and our connection to the current scientific developments would not be cut. First the Space Academy and afterwards the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization were founded with the aim to build a solid-fuel SLV. […] This work in the IRGC’s Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization moved ahead with the special care of the overall commander of the IRGC, the support of the Supreme Leader and the direct Management of Moghaddam. It was different from the efforts of the Industries (Aerospace Industries Organization). The AIO had entered the area of spaceflight using liquid-fuel technology, but Moghaddam entered this area through the use of solid-fuel technology.

Manteghi’s claims about a lack of safety features are equally convincing. Satellite pictures show that Shahid Modarres Garrison lacked earthen berms, a standard safety measure for solid-fuel production sites intended to deflect blasts in case of accidental explosion. Indeed, the lack of these essential safety measures was so striking that it caused some analysts to initially doubt the base was related to solid-fuel at all.

Left: the Shahid Modarres Garrison, Right: Iraq’s bermed Taj al-Ma’arik solid-fuel plant

If one reads carefully between the lines, one cannot help but wonder whether parts of Iran’s security establishment might have had their own doubts about Moghaddam’s management style. A former colleague remembers: ‘Contrary to what many think cowardly, the martyrdom of the guys was not because of carelessness.’ Moghaddam’s widow complained that ‘six months before his martyrdom I became very anxious because I had heard something that made me think they planned to stain his honor. Others were telling him you have no scientific training and no specialization, you can’t make progress.’

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the previous safety record of the program seems to have been abysmal. Interviews with surviving members of the SSJO team and family members of the ‘Martyrs’ abound with stories of accidents and Moghaddam’s coworkers coping with their fear. A previous explosion killed a number of team members causing several others to quit. Apparently, Moghaddam himself nearly escaped death before: ‘Two years before their martyrdom there was an incident. In a building they were preparing an engine that they had loaded with fuel for a test. Mehdi Navab took the hand of Moghaddam and told him to go outside. Hassan asked why. Mehdi just shouted that this work was very dangerous and that he should leave. In the end, after he had left, the nozzle of the engine went off to the same spot Moghaddam had been standing and ripped through the wall. If Moghaddam had remained at this spot he would have become a martyr.

A widow of one of Moghaddam’s co-workers remembers: ‘Sometimes they (Moghaddam, Dashtbanzade and Mir-Hosseini), together with Martyr Nabipur, even went to the compartment where the fuel was made. He said, we know that if something happens, there will be only dust left of us but they just looked at each other and laughed. He said there was anxiety and fear, he could not deny that but more than anything else there was a feeling of satisfaction.

The Explosion

So what actually happened on Saturday November 12, 2011? Like the memories of a night of heavy drinking, the information available is a strange mixture of incredible detail and general vagueness.

IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh had the following to say about the reason for the explosion: ‘Commander Moghaddam was working on an innovation and on the day of the accident he was testing fuel when the incident happened.

Former IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari had a slightly different, but not necessarily contradictory explanation.

Curiously enough, this is not the only Jafari statement mentioning an important test coming up for Moghaddam. Jafari also referred to an important test tied to the SLV project in his comments on the first anniversary of Moghaddam’s death.

In a Basij meeting the same year, he also mentioned an important test that Moghaddam talked about in his last meeting with him: ‘I will tell you that approximately ten days before I had a meeting with Martyr Tehrani Moghaddam and he happily announced the most recently matured innovations and technologies and said that all the necessary activities for this project had been accomplished and that it was ready for the final test.

Other accounts by co-workers who survived the explosion and the wives of deceased SSJO team members also mention the program rapidly approached some sort of milestone. A surviving SSJO team member remembers: ‘On the day of the accident we wanted to conduct the final test of our work. To put it in other words, we wanted to reap the rewards of five years of our work. It was a big day for us.’

Former Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi claimed that a visit of high-ranking officials to  Shahid Modarres Garrison was scheduled for November 13, the day after the explosion.

Fathollah Oumi, Moghaddam’s old companion and current president of Iran’s Aerospace Research Institute, was a little more specific when it came to what work the accident was related to.

What to make of this statement? It is a little difficult to fathom what exactly Oumi meant with successful tests of the fourth, third and second stages. Potentially, he could have referred to engine tests, alternatively some of the upper stages might simply have been repurposed existing systems. Assessing Oumi’s remarks is further complicated by the fact that the professor offers conflicting statements at times.  In one interview he mentioned the SLV would have three stages, in another one he talks about four stages.

Interestingly, there is quite a bit of evidence that the team’s trouble had already started the day before the explosion. Several sources mention team members were surprisingly called in for work the day before the explosion. An unnamed surviving team member, interviewed for a documentary remembers some sort of equipment failure happening on Friday night.

Unfortunately, it is not known whether Moghaddam agreed or simply responded to the reports with a laconic ‘not great not terrible.’

What is clear is that work went ahead as planned the next day and somewhat surprisingly, succeeded. An unnamed surviving co-worker of Moghaddam confirms that they had finished whatever they were doing. ‘The incident happened at a time when the dangerous work had already been finished. Another account by an unnamed survivor, who might be the same person, mentioned that work proceeded according to schedule and the only thing left to do was to clean the workspace with water and steam. At 11:49 Moghaddam led the Zohr prayers for his workers. At 13:03 the giant explosion reduced the Shahid Modarres Garrison to rubble. Leaked videos of the explosion’s aftermath show a scene of utter devastation (Warning – extremely graphic Video 1 Video 2 Video 3).

So what exactly were they doing? The casting of a larger diameter solid-fuel motor could be an explanation that checks all the boxes: An important test for the SLV project, related to the first stage, a milestone in the development program. This hypothesis would also explain why the epicenter of the explosion in satellite pictures seems to be located at the site of an apparent large casting pit. It also fits neatly with the large static test stand whose construction was finished right before the explosion (35.551336°, 50.840788°). However, the threads are just a little too loose, the information a little too vague, to draw any conclusions with an acceptable degree of certainty.

Conclusion: Accident or Sabotage?

A closer look at the 2011 explosion in Bidganeh and the surprising amount of data it generated unfortunately brings us no closer to determining whether it was an accident or sabotage. Part of the problem is that both explanations sound equally feasible.

On the one hand, we have the founder of Iran’s missile program, leading a program with major strategic implications, being conveniently wiped out together with his whole team as the program approached a major milestone. His brother also claims it was sabotage, an IRGC-affiliated series raises the same point, and there are somewhat lukewarm denials by Iranian officials. 

On the other hand, there is a program that is ruthlessly being pushed ahead by a man who seems hell-bent on applying his Iran-Iraq war style of management to highly complex rocket development. The program is pursued with little concern for the health of its workers, lacks even the most basic safety features and is riddled by a series of serious accidents. The fact that the explosion happened at the time the program was approaching a milestone could be read as an indication for sabotage just as well as sign of pressure to move ahead and finally push things over the edge.

And yet again, both explanations might not be as mutually exclusive as they first seem. Appropriate safety measures and protocols might decide whether an act of sabotage results in a mere loss of material or wipes out the whole program and most of its staff. And as the Iranian leadership learned the hard way, when lax cybersecurity leaves something to be desired, unexpected equipment failure can sometimes be accompanied by AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blaring from computers.

Thus, the reasons for the incident at Shahid Modarres Garrison will remain a mystery, at least until an IRGC commander or an unnamed source in DC steps up and provides much needed clarification.

Moghaddam’s next Martyrdom anniversary is coming up in a few weeks. Let’s hope for some new documentaries.