Iran’s Physicists

Jeremy Bernstein

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.


  • 19 March 2015 at 5:39pm
    suetonius says:
    I doubt seriously that Iran would have any need to buy plans for a bomb. They have more than enough talented physicists to do it locally. When I was an undergraduate, in the early 80s, a physics student at Princeton designed a bomb as his senior thesis. He wasn't one of the best students. His advisor, if I remember right, was Freeman Dyson, who certainly knew the design was correct. The student was contacted by Pakistan (who didn't have the bomb at the time). Serious physicists in Iran could design a bomb pretty easily.

  • 20 March 2015 at 2:45pm
    suetonius says:
    OK, thought I replied last night, but I guess not :-) Thanks so much for the quick response, and the interesting information. I'm not exactly surprised that the whole thing was a setup way back when, though I do remember hearing that the FBI etc were all involved, which I guess might have been part of Dyson's plan. It was a pretty big deal in the mainstream, the student was giving talks all over the place, with Dyson's backing. As someone who had been a physics student at Princeton, but then transferred to Hampshire, I remember being somewhat annoyed that here was this guy, who from what I could tell wasn't as good as me, getting all this publicity. Ah, jealousy. Well, I turned into a mathematician, and left all the physics behind.
    It is interesting to me that getting something small enough for a missile is that big a deal, but of course I'm no expert on designing a-bombs.

    • 20 March 2015 at 3:12pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ suetonius
      The student's name was John Aristotle Phillips. In the course of Interviews I did with Hans Bethe who was in charge of the Theory Division at Los Alamos I discussed the matter. He was thoroughly annoyed with Dyson. Here is part of what he said. "I have seen the paper of the Princeton student and to the professional it is not impressive...He mentions a few types of explosives that could be used to assemble the fissile material, but he does not discuss the intricate shapes in which the explosive has to be cast. To cast the correct shapes, and to prove they were indeed correct, took months at Los Alamos with hundreds of technicians and this was one of many problems that are not discussed in the open literature." As far and I am concerned the whole thing was a misguided publicity stunt.

  • 20 March 2015 at 9:21pm
    streetsj says:
    I had no idea it was still so difficult to design a nuclear bomb - I assumed that information was widely disseminated. How did North Korea gets its capability?

    • 21 March 2015 at 12:57am
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ streetsj
      Klaus Fuchs supplied the Russians with a blue print of the Nagasaki bomb. They were ordered by Beria to make a clone. It took them four years. The North Koreans were helped by the Russians and Chinese. A.Q. Khan with the awareness of the Pakistani military traded centrifuges for missile technology.

    • 21 March 2015 at 10:08pm
      JonathanDawid says: @ streetsj
      You are correct. It is one of the great myths of non-proliferation that nuclear weapons are fiendishly difficult to develop. The physics behind them is relatively simple and can be understood by any good undergraduate. The engineering is a greater challenge - but it was still solved in the 1940s by people working with slide rules. The notion that more or less any nation with a dedicated team with some modern computers could not design a working bomb is fanciful.

      The real difficulty is in getting enough fissile material together. That's not a technical problem, it's a logistical one. You need uranium 235 in sufficient quantities, and that needs an industrial-scale purification process. Hence why the focus on Iran is on the number of centrifuges - they're hard to hide, and their number is a good indicator of intention (since weapons-grade Uranium needs a higher concentration of U235 than the enriched uranium used in reactors, and so more centrifuges to make it)

  • 21 March 2015 at 11:33pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    There were two kinds of bombs designed at Los Alamos: the gun assembly device used on Hiroshima and the implosion device used on Nagasaki. The former was designed using Marchant calculators-the electro mechanical machines that I used when I was writing my thesis-and the latter which used an IBM punch card computer. Centrifuges can be hidden. The Chinese did it so we did not know that their first test was imminent since we expected them to use plutonium. The Iranians did it in spades with Natanz. The number of centrifuges is not the whole story. It is the number of SWU-see a previous blog of mine or my book Nuclear Iran.

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