It's well over a year since the United Nations intellectual property agency got caught undermining the U.N.’s own sanctions—shipping U.S.-origin computers and related high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran. In classic U.N. fashion, the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as WIPO, stiffed congressional inquiries and arranged its own narrow and “independent” investigation of itself. Thanks to U.N. privileges and immunities, WIPO was ultimately judged by the U.N. to have stayed within the letter, if not the spirit, of U.N. sanctions. WIPO’s director general, Francis Gurry, maintained that WIPO had done nothing wrong, but decreed that to dispel any lingering doubt, WIPO would stop sending high-tech hardware to any of its 186 member states.
That has not, however, marked the end of WIPO’s cozy ties to Iran and North Korea. Both these rogue states have learned to exploit this U.N. agency in ways that may not break U.N. rules, but do suggest the organization needs far better management. Based in Geneva, WIPO operates largely off the radar of the U.S. press, but it handles sensitive information and serves an important role as the global clearinghouse for international patent applications and other forms of intellectual property rights.
Gurry, an Australian, is now running for reelection as WIPO director general against three rival candidates—from Panama, Estonia, and Nigeria—with the vote due next spring. There are worries in Congress that his reelection would be a disaster. In September, five lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, noting that Gurry had refused to allow WIPO staffers to testify in a bipartisan investigation into the computer shipments to North Korea and Iran, an “activity that would have put any U.S. citizen behind bars.” They accused Gurry of “erratic and secretive behavior and colossal lack of judgment.” In November, 12 lawmakers sent another letter to Kerry, alleging that “the situation at WIPO has substantially deteriorated.”
That may be a generous assessment, given that WIPO’s problems extend to areas Congress may not even be tracking. For starters, while Iran may no longer be receiving free computers from WIPO, Iran has insinuated itself into the organization’s budgeting and oversight process. Since at least 2011, Iran has held one of the 53 seats on WIPO’s program and budget committee, a post to which it was unanimously reelected this October for another two-year term. Thanks to its seat on the budget committee, Iran was chosen last year to chair a special panel tasked with vetting candidates for three of the seven seats on WIPO’s independent advisory oversight committee, the body of outside experts entrusted with helping member states oversee WIPO.
This Iran-chaired panel was set up in September 2012, while WIPO was both denying any wrongdoing in the tech for tyrants scandal and promising to behave better. Iran’s chairmanship was the choice of WIPO member states, not of Gurry. But there is no sign that either Gurry or, for that matter, the State Department made any move to protest this development. The Iran-chaired panel went quietly to work, and WIPO General Assembly records show that this October Iran’s ambassador, Abbas Bagherpour, was pleased to present a list of six candidates, culled under his leadership from a field of 160 applicants, for the job of ensuring WIPO’s integrity.
As far as Gurry’s direct responsibilities, there is also the curious and apparently unexplored matter of the Iranian and North Korean nationals working under him on WIPO’s staff. The numbers look trivial, but some of the activities do not. Among a staff of more than 1,200, based mostly in Geneva, WIPO employs both an Iranian and a North Korean whose names turn up, respectively, in connection with the computer shipments to Iran and North Korea.
Apart from the most senior staff, WIPO’s press office treats all details of individual staffers as secret, including their names, jobs, and nationalities. But information can be gleaned from WIPO’s terse public notes on technical assistance missions and conferences, plus interviews, a confidential WIPO staff list seen by this reporter, and WIPO in-house correspondence published last year by Fox News executive editor George Russell, who in April 2012 broke the WIPO tech for tyrants story.
The Iranian staffer whose name is linked to tech transfers to Iran is Mohammad Moayedoddin. He was hired by WIPO in 1998, following more than 20 years working for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during which WIPO was part of his brief. Since joining WIPO, Moayedoddin has worked out of Geneva for WIPO’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, which covers Iran and North Korea. WIPO records show Moayedoddin visiting both countries over the years, organizing or speaking at numerous seminars in Iran and speaking in North Korea at a 2003 WIPO seminar in Pyongyang on using patent information “to support technological development.”
Since at least 2008, Moayedoddin has worked as deputy director of WIPO’s Asia-Pacific bureau. In an internal WIPO memorandum dated 2009—a year after Gurry became director general—another WIPO staff member wrote that following a 2008 mission by Moayedoddin and another staffer to Iran, Iran requested “hardware equipment.” That led to a WIPO shipment of computers to Iran in 2010. There is one other Iranian national on staff at WIPO since at least 2009, Azadeh Ahmadian, who holds the post of examiner—a job that can involve handling confidential information on intellectual property.
On the North Korean front, a WIPO activity report dated September 29, 2010, notes that in 2009 two staffers were “repeatedly approached” by a North Korean diplomat, “Mr. Sok,” who requested WIPO’s support for such projects as “searching patent information free databases, etc.” This diplomat was Sok Jong Myong, an envoy of North Korea to the U.N. in Geneva, where his duties included denouncing Israel (in excellent English) at the Human Rights Council, as well as representing Pyongyang at WIPO.
Sok’s repeated requests led to a WIPO mission to Pyongyang, out of which came the high-tech shipment to North Korea in early 2012. Meanwhile, sometime around 2010, WIPO hired Sok onto its staff, where he appears on a recently updated internal staff list as a senior program officer in WIPO’s division for least-developed countries.
This year, WIPO has continued its missions to North Korea, sponsoring a seminar in March on industrial design protection (North Korea has filed only two applications for industrial designs, one for hairpins and another for a musical instrument) and dispatching a technical assistance mission in June. When I asked the aim of the technical mission, a WIPO spokeswoman emailed back that it was to check what North Korea was doing with goods provided by WIPO. According to the spokeswoman, “The mission confirmed that all of the supplied equipment was installed in the Invention Office” and “was being used for the intended purposes.”
That’s not necessarily reassuring. Despite all the computers and seminars and study trips WIPO has provided to North Korea over the past dozen years, North Korea under WIPO’s benchmark Patent Cooperation Treaty System has produced only 32 patent filings. Iran has produced 28. So, even assuming the WIPO-supplied hardware is being used strictly to access WIPO services, what might these countries be doing with it?
WIPO’s searchable database provides access to some 2.2 million international patent applications, including 32.5 million documents crammed with details of who is inventing what, and where. For U.N.-sanctioned regimes scouring back-channels for forbidden goods and services, this database could double as a high-tech global shopping directory. A seasoned North Korea expert, Chuck Downs, says that for Pyongyang it could serve as “an intelligence windfall.” WIPO says that the database contains published information, and is freely searchable on the Internet. In that case, why such care by WIPO to provide the likes of Iran and North Korea with training seminars and follow-up missions that leave the equipment in place?
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.