- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

In 1995, former Iranian president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani made a little-noticed trip to the neighboring country of Georgia. He spent several hours in Tbilisi, the capital, and then instead of returning to Iran, he made a secret side trip to the breakaway region of Adjara to visit President Aslan Abashidze.

The purpose of the detour was not to visit the balmy, palm-treed tourist sea port resort of Batumi on the Black Sea. His purpose was more sinister.

The Iranian president was looking for black market sources of chemicals to enrich uranium for building a nuclear bomb. He found a willing partner in the small-time warlord, who promised to help for an undisclosed sum of money. In fact, Mr. Abashidze — who was later ousted from power in 2004 — offered his important contacts in Russia, as well as private Adjaran planes to secretly fly the needed components to Iran.

The deal went through.

In 1998 and 2001, Mr. Abashidze in fact sent two airplanes to Tehran to establish business contacts with Iranians. Then he arranged for four Russian scientists to travel to Tehran. The first stop was Batumi. The Russians, armed with fake passports, their wrists handcuffed to expensive leather attache cases filled with materials to aid Iran’s uranium enrichment program, were flown to Iran on Mr. Abashidze’s orders to help the government build the bomb.

Earlier, in June 1997, two Pakistanis — introduced to Mr. Abashidze as Nobel prize-winning physicians — stayed in Batumi for three months under tight security. Their bodyguards were seen on the city streets. The motorcades blared through street lights. They turned out to be employees of A.Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program and regarded as a national hero.

Mr. Abashidze gave the Pakistanis his private plane and they flew to Isfahan, in Iran. The plane returned to Batumi loaded down with cardboard boxes full of cash which Mr. Abashidze’s bodyguards put in their Hummers and delivered to Mr. Abashidze’s residential palace.

When Mikhail Saakashvili took power in Georgia after the Rose Revolution, relations between Georgia and Adjara deteriorated quickly.

Mr. Abashidze was considered a ruthless dictator, and in the words of one prominent American statesman, “a commie stooge.”

On a pleasant spring night in May, 2004, groups of protesters stormed the president’s residence in Batumi, demanding Mr. Abashidze’s resignation. There were many factors that led to his ouster, among them the suspicion that he had raided the Adjara budget and secreted huge amounts of cash — including personal letters from Iranian officials regarding the uranium deal — out of the country. When his secretary protested in those last desperate hours, saying there was no time to gather all his correspondence, Mr. Abashidze replied that he only needed the letters written in Farsi. She complied, according to witnesses, and it took more than an hour to gather all the private paperwork.

A plane was sent from Moscow to pick him up. He took his bodyguards, and his son and the incriminating evidence of the Iranian deal. He is now living in Moscow in luxury, (with a fake passport, indeed he is afraid to travel) a billionaire protected by the even more corrupt Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushkov, a close ally, who despises America. Nevertheless, Mr. Abashidze just purchased a home in Vienna for $5 million, where his son — a well known drug dealer and playboy — resides.

It’s doubtful anyone in the Kremlin — especially President Vladimir Putin — knew what Mr. Abashidze was up to. In fact, I knew Mr. Abashidze from 2001 to 2003. There was gossip about his role in securing enriched uranium for Iran, but nothing could be proven at the time. We knew Mr. Abashidze hated Mr. Putin because of his moderate political positions, and that he was a loyal friend to Iran. When Adjaran “musicians” (in reality various scientists and chemists) traveled to Iran to promote Adjarian “culture” (whatever that is), Iranian President Mohammed Khatami attended the performances, which were oddly devoid of any musical instruments. The Iranian president publicly thanked Mr. Abashidze — and his small fiefdom — for his help in developing “Iranian science.” Which meant only one thing: the bomb.

America and European allies are now forced to accept the fact that Iran got help from outside countries, especially Russia. This fact can only make President Putin sick to his stomach. How can he possibly handle such an international crisis? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush are vowing to undermine Iran’s determination, with Mr. Putin’s help.

Terrorists come in many forms. So do dictators. Greedy for cash and seemingly invulnerable, Mr. Abashidze saw an opportunity and seized it, with no regard for the consequences.

The mystery of how Iran got the chemicals to enrich the uranium lies with Mr. Abashidze, a little-known figure now protected by his powerful friends in Moscow. He is under investigation for murder and money laundering, but so far international authorities have little hard evidence of his involvement with Iran’s nuclear program. He is merely a footnote in the history of terrorism, but if Iran succeeds in building a nuclear bomb, Mr. Abashidze — in that dark night of the soul — can claim success if and when Iran decides to detonate a deadly mushroom cloud against its enemies. Innocent people will die. And Mr. Abashidze will sleep on his silk sheets.

And when Mr. Lushkov is finally out of power, Mr. Abashidze (known as “Babu,” or grandfather, to his followers) can always flee Moscow and find a safe haven in Iran as the most honorable citizen of the country.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian Parliament and a visiting scholar at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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