The former chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces has said that foreign governments used different species of lizards, including chameleons, to spy on the Iranian nuclear program. The claim was made by Hassan Firuzabadi, a veteran Iranian military official, who from 1989 to 2016 served as the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces —the most senior military post in the Islamic Republic. Since his retirement in 2016, Firuzabadi has served in a number of key consultancy roles and is currently a senior military advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s reform-minded supreme leader.
On Tuesday, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), a pro-reformist news and analysis outlet, published a lengthy interview with Firuzabadi. The former military strongman was speaking in response to reports earlier this week that a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmental campaigner had died in prison, allegedly of suicide. Kavous Seyed Emami, 63, was a professor of sociology, director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and political activist. He was arrested with seven of his colleagues on January 24 and charged with espionage. On February 9, Emami’s family said that they had been informed by authorities of his death in prison, reportedly as a result of suicide. The news was later confirmed by Iran’s chief prosecutor. Emami’s family, as well as numerous environmental campaigners and activists, dispute the government’s claims of suicide as a cause of his death.
But in his interview published on ILNA’s website, Firuzabadi claimed that environmental activists with links to foreign countries have in the past been found to engage in espionage against the Islamic Republic. He told the news outlet that some years ago Iranian authorities arrested a group of foreigners who were visiting Iran to raise funds for Palestinian political prisoners. He added that among the foreigners’ possessions authorities found “a species of desert reptile, like a chameleon”, which puzzled them. Firuzabadi then said that, “following studies” on the lizards, Iranian authorities concluded that their skin “attracts atomic waves”. They therefore concluded that the foreigners were in fact “nuclear spies” who had entered Iran in order to “find out where [in the country] are uranium mines and where the government is engaged in nuclear-related activities”. Firuzabadi also said that many foreigners who are engaged in environmental activism “are not even aware of the fact that they are actually spying” on Iran.
But Western scientists and science reporters dismissed Firuzabadi’s claims as fantastical. On Tuesday, John Timmer, science editor for the United States-based technology and science website Ars Technica, called the Iranian military official’s claims “insane” and added that there was “no scientific evidence that reptiles […] are effective as Geiger counters”.