This part of the story is going to take a turn into some backstory. It will give insight into our yet unnamed main character’s military background and his ties to Jacksonville that brought him to Jonesy.
As full disclosure, the idea for this section that shows the background of the character’s relationship with Brad Rafferty came from an early draft of Blood Orange. My editor wisely had me pull it out of the book, but I liked the story and thought it could help to give this character some substance.
Enjoy this next installment.
Road Kill – Part 10
As I sat back on the couch in the borrowed trailer, I immersed myself in the experience that I had with Brad Rafferty on our off-the-books mission in Iran five years earlier.
I began to tell Ben Simpson the story and the words came to me in a flood as I could still feel every detail.
I remembered that the heat was stifling in August in Iran. Even early in the morning, the heat hit me like a blast from a giant oven whose door had just been open. The average daily temperature was around 95 Fahrenheit this time of year, but the days we spent there were warmer than average with temperatures over 100.
The International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA had set up a task force to deal with inspections and other issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. The mission of the task force was to focus and streamline the handling of Iran’s nuclear program by concentrating experts and other resources into one dedicated team. Rafferty was in charge of one of the factions of the team and he enlisted my help as an analyst. We would be overseeing the inspection at the underground site at Fordow while we covertly tried to gather information the Iranian government wasn’t sharing with us.
The concern at this site was the significant growth of Iranian uranium enrichment capabilities. The number of centrifuges had reportedly more than doubled from 1,000 in May to over 2,000 currently. Iran had produced nearly 420 pounds of 20%-enriched uranium. This amount had increased about 320 pounds in May. The previous team discovered that only a small portion of this 20%-enriched uranium had been converted to an oxide form and transformed to fuel research reactors. Once the uranium is converted in this way, it cannot be easily enriched to weapons-grade quality. That still left a large portion of production that had not been converted. We were there to discover the status and plan for this unconverted portion.
Ben leaned forward as I told this story. For some reason I had piqued his interest.
Our team mostly consisted of nationals that came from third-world countries. Up until now, inspectors from the United States were not allowed in Iran. We were the first. Rafferty was the US lead and was allowed to bring one analyst with him. The involvement of American experts was a pilot program for this round of inspections and Rafferty immediately saw how hollow the exercise had been up until now.
Typically, the inspection teams excluded personnel from the United States, the UK, Germany, France and Canada. The inspectors were recruited from around the world and were typically individuals with no specialized knowledge of nuclear weapons. They were pulled from bureaucratic jobs that involved filling out paperwork inventory. Iran balked at the inclusion of Americans, especially from the military, but it was made clear that failure to concede on this issue would result in further trade and monetary sanctions.
“So why did they choose Fordow? That’s not one of the leading suspected sites for weaponization of nuclear material, is it?” Ben asked.
The Fordow site was chosen by the Iranians and it was soon clear to us why. The site had all appearances of being industrial in nature and not related to weaponization of nuclear materials in any way. Their official escort from the Iranian government led us around the facility and made sure that all questions were answered in a satisfactory way by the plant personnel.
“So what was your role on Raffery’s team?” Ben asked when I took a breath.
I told Ben that I was brought on board to provide Rafferty with intelligence on all of the Iranian personnel that we interacted with. Beyond this, I was also able to uncover background information on the other team members. I didn’t tell Ben this, because it was off the books. I quickly discovered that many of them were receiving suspicious supplemental funding from some source, likely the Iranian government, so that inspection findings would be favorable.
“How did the Iranians treat you?” Ben asked.
This was an interesting question. We were told at the outset of the trip that our position on the inspection team would be contentious and they might face obstacles in obtaining information. We were treated coolly by their hosts and the other team members. We knew this wasn’t going to work as we tried to gather intelligence.
That was until we met Dr. Zaafir Alam. Dr. Alam was a U.S. educated scientist that had actually spent many years working and living in the United States. His mother had taken ill and he had traveled to Iran to see her in the late 1980’s. She passed away, and, as he traveled to the airport for his return to the United States, he was detained by security and prevented from leaving the country. His background in nuclear engineering and research afforded him the ‘privilege’ of being presented with a job opportunity working for the Iranian government. He had since married, had children, and made a decent life in Iran, but we could tell he missed the United States. That’s how we bonded with him.
“Bonded how? Did this guy pass you information?” Ben pressed.
I decided at that moment to hold back on some details. My instincts told me that Ben was much more interested in what happened in Iran than I had anticipated. My penchant for holding classified information close was causing alarms to go off. I decided to go forward with a redacted version of the story so I didn’t arouse his suspicions.
I told Ben how Rafferty and Alam became frequent dinner companions. At first, their conversations were about what was happening in the U.S. and generic shop talk about the nuclear industry. Both men were afraid, justifiably so, that their dinners were under surveillance by the Iranian government. Rafferty could tell, however, that something was troubling Alam. Whenever conversation approached any topic remotely related to the inspections, Alam became uncomfortable in a way that indicated he had something heavy on his mind.
This was when I decided that it was time to leave out some detail. Rafferty was able to leverage his relationship with Alam. It happened organically and was not malicious in any way. As Rafferty relayed it to me, after about four weeks of frequent dinners, Alam rose from the table at the end of a Friday evening meal when it was time to leave. Rafferty rose as well, and they shook hands. It was an American custom, but was not unusual in Iran, especially within a business setting. This time, when they shook hands, Alam placed a slip of paper in Rafferty’s hand. It was obvious that it was not meant to be read until he was alone.
I told Simpson that Rafferty and Alam met in secret and a plan was put in place to obtain information about the Iranian nuclear program that was off the books. All he wanted in return was to gain asylum for himself and his family in the United States. Rafferty felt like we could make this happen.
“But it didn’t happen, did it?” Simpson asked.
I told Simpson that they got to Alam before we could help him reach his goal. This was essentially the truth. What I didn’t tell him was how the U.S. government had dragged their feet under the pretense of validating the data that we received from Alam and concern over his motivation. Instead of being granted asylum, he and his family were executed. They made plans to touch base the following day and both men went their separate ways. The data we gathered couldn’t be validated and Alam lost his life needlessly. Rafferty took it hard and I was baptized by fire into the world of covert operations.
Simpson pondered my story for a minute.
“You must have been upset when Alam didn’t get rewarded for the information,” he said, obviously fishing for more.
He was right, but I didn’t allow him to see my internal reaction. He seemed about to press me for more information when the burner phone that Jones had given us chirped to life. I answered it.
“I just had visitors,” Jones said in a voice that was calm and even.
He let us know that some local federal agents had been to his office asking about recent visitors. He also let us know that he didn’t give them any information and that we were likely safe for now. His next bit of news rocked me to my core, however.
“By the way, my poking around the Deep Web has earned me an exclusive privilege. I’m going to be meeting with Mr. Athenos.”
I was confused. I hadn’t realized that the code word I had given Jones was the name of an actual person. He didn’t realize this either.
“I received an encrypted email with someone claiming to be him. He wants to meet with you, Simpson and me. I was given a time and place.”
Jones gave me the information. It would be in two days. We would drive south on Interstate 95 and would receive further instructions. Athenos indicated that he would give us what we needed. I wasn’t so sure.