The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
I am going to take a quick detour to Libya. In 1968, King Idris made the country a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. When Colonel Gaddafi took over the following year he did not change this treaty status. Indeed Libya began a modest development in peaceful nuclear activities. This did not last long; on a state visit to China in 1970 Gaddafi made an unsuccessful attempt to buy nuclear weapons. He then tried both India and Pakistan and had a go at enriching uranium. What characterised the Libyan programme throughout was the lack of a real scientific infrastructure. In the 1980s, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan began selling nuclear secrets. In the late 1990s Gaddafi bought the package which included plans and parts to build centrifuges. When he decided to give the programme up in 2003, even with the aid of foreign scientists the Libyans had succeeded in building only one centrifuge.
On 21 January 2004, a large delegation of British and American intelligence agents as well as representatives of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) assembled to examine what the Libyans had turned over and decide what to do with it. Two of them, one British and one American, were escorted to a small office. Two large bags containing documents were brought in to be inspected. The first one contained detailed plans for constructing a nuclear weapon that the Chinese had successfully tested and flown in a medium range ballistic missile on 27 October 1966. There were notations in Chinese on the diagrams. They are now stored in a classified storage vault somewhere in the US.
Now back to Iran. It is well known that Iran bought Khan’s centrifuge package, and what they did with it is also obvious: 18,000 functioning centrifuges. What is not obvious is whether they bought the rest of the package. They will not allow the IAEA to inspect anything that directly relates to the military aspects of their program. In a 2011 report the IAEA wrote:
In an interview in 2007 with a member of the clandestine nuclear supply network, the Agency was told that Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information. From information provided to the Agency during that interview, the Agency is concerned that Iran may have obtained more advanced design information than the information identified in 2004 as having been provided to Libya by the nuclear supply network.
Much discussion has come out of the negotiations concerning matters such as uranium enrichment. Nothing, at least that I have read, has come out on how to put the genie of knowledge back into the bottle. I think it more than likely that Iran has these designs and has probably improved on them. It just takes a small group of talented physicists working in a few offices to do so. That is what happened in Pakistan. This makes it all the more urgent that whatever agreement is reached – if one is ever reached – strictly limits the fissile material available to implement the plans. I am not very optimistic.