The Blog

Iran, Students & Weapons Programs

1:23 PM, Oct 26, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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Today's New York Times reports: "The United States and three European allies have given Russia and China a draft text for a Security Council resolution against Iran's nuclear program. The proposal includes the extraordinary step of preventing Iranian students from studying nuclear physics at foreign universities and colleges." The Times continues:

It was unclear just how far-reaching the proposed ban against nuclear education for Iranian students abroad would be, and the diplomats involved in the negotiations did not seem to have resolved that issue.

The prohibition would ban any training and education of Iranian citizens if it could eventually contribute to nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But whether such a ban would extend to all physics courses, or even to mathematics and other courses, remained undetermined.

In fact, recent history suggests the U.S. and our allies have good reason to be concerned about such contributions to Iran's weapons programs. Saddam, as I have noted before, tapped foreign universities to boost his nuclear program - a program that "was only 12 to 18 months from producing its first bomb," the Washington Post reported in August 1991, "not five to 10 years as previously thought."

In a 1995 Washington Quarterly article, "Denial and Deception Practices WMD Proliferators: Iraq and Beyond," former weapons inspector David Kay wrote that Iraq hid its nuclear weapons program by keeping it "heavily compartmentalized" and employing a variety of deception techniques. For example, Iraq created a network of front companies to import nuclear-related materials "in quantities that were below the size that triggered controls."

Kay continued:

The Iraqi nuclear program involved at least 20,000 personnel, many of whom had training and contacts abroad. This was a potentially large source of leakage of information on the aims and direction of these activities. Iraq faced this problem and adopted a series of deception practices designed to limit any such loss. First, Iraq managed its flow of personnel to ensure that students were not all sent to the same universities and countries. This had several advantages. Training in most scientific disciplines follows somewhat different approaches in different countries and provides access to multiple networks of information. This is particularly true in the various engineering and science disciplines that most concern a nuclear weapons program. For example, information concerning the ability and techniques involved in focusing X-rays was classified in the United States long after it was part of the general physics literature in Japan, Germany, and Britain.

Also, by dispersing students, Iraq made it more difficult for any one country to fully appreciate the breadth of technical skills being built up in Iraq. And this dispersal of students certainly made it more difficult to track individual Iraqi scientists. Concerns with privacy and academic freedom as well as a low collection priority have meant that systematic data on foreign students are collected in few countries and seldom shared with other countries.

So the American effort to diminish Iran's ability to do the same thing is not "extraordinary." It's common sense.