The Father of the Iranian Nuclear Bomb
The man traditionally deemed “the father” of Iranian nukes is an ex-Communist turned exiled Shah supporter, a peace activist who still supports Iran’s nuclear program.
While the man Israeli intelligence recently outed as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear program –Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—belongs to Iran’s repressive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the man traditionally deemed “the father” of Iranian nukes is more ambiguous – an ex-Communist turned exiled Shah supporter, a peace activist who still supports Iran’s nuclear program, for nationalist reasons.
Dr. Akbar Etemad has lived three different cliches. His first about-face from Communist to nuclear scientist and bureaucrat proved that some minds are too expansive to be contained by any one ideology. His prominence as a peace activist after sneaking out of the new Islamic Republic of Iran suggests he belonged to the Republic of Science, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the dissident scientist who rejected the nuclear weapons he helped design. But Etemad’s lifelong stance as a proud Iranian suggests that even if the Mullahocracy falls – Iran’s nuclear ambitions will persist.
Predicting foreign policy is a tricky business. In fact, this topsy-turvy tale begins with a most unlikely co-star in launching Iran’s nuclear program: America’s president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program assumed nuclear energy could fuel growth globally, providing cheap, efficient energy. This vision appealed to Shah Mohamed Rez Pahlavi. Hoping to modernize Iran, he treated his country’s oil as a commodity to be sold to others not burned by Iranians. Iran’s nuclear program began slowly, fitfully, until 1974, when the spike in oil prices gave Iran the budget to go nuclear – and a local boy turned Swiss-trained-nuclear-scientist, Dr. Akebar Etemad, gave Iran the know-how.
There were two major obstacles to hiring Etemad, who was born in Hamadan in 1930, and grew up as the son of one of the town’s grandees. The first was Etemad’s wife – she did not want to leave their cushy life in Switzerland, where he was chief of the nuclear shielding group of the Swiss Federal Institute for Reactor Research. Etemad had already solved that problem by divorcing her – and returning home in 1965, too much the Iranian nationalist to choose to become an expatriate scientist. Etemad quickly proved himself to the Shah after hearing at the University of Tehran that Iran’s nuclear reactor project was floundering. Putting, as he recalled, “all my diplomas in a bag,” he offered his assistance. “God has sent you through the window to us,” the chairman of the National Planning Organization exclaimed.
In 1973, Etemad helped establish Bu Ali Sina University in Hamadan. Rejecting Iran’s constant mimicry of Western models, Etemad integrated Persian culture and intellectual methods into his university.
The second obstacle was tougher – getting security clearance from the Shah’s dreaded secret police, the Savak. Etemad had, at two critical times, been involved with the Tudeh Party of Iranian Communists. In his defense, he had quit twice, frustrated by the Party’s rigidity. Still, it showed what Etemad thought of the Shah’s modernist yet repressive regime.
The Shah, however, was pragmatic. His advisers knew of no Iranian who had mastered the secrets of atomic fission as brilliantly as the now-reformed Etemad. “The past is not important,” the Shah pronounced. “He wants to serve his country now and we must use him.” In heading Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Etemad would enjoy a sweeping mandate: “to go,” he recalled, “for all the technologies imaginable in the field of nuclear technology”.
Thus began one of the stranger tutorials in the history of science. Etemad wasn’t sure if the Shah wanted to produce nuclear energy – or weapons. The scientist began meeting weekly with the sovereign, first explaining the science, then clarifying the motives. Charmed – and committed to a “dual-use” agenda while denying it publicly -- the Shah gave Etemad a vast budget, and sweeping powers as Deputy Prime Minister.
One day Etemad asked: “Now that you know the difference between building a reactor and a bomb, enrichment, and so on, what do you want me to do?”
Wooing his idealistic scientist, the Shah explained, Etemad recalled, “that he’s strong enough in the region and he can defend our interests in the region [and] he didn’t want nuclear weapons. But he told me that if this changes we would have to ‘go for nuclear’. He had that in mind.”
Decades later, Iran’s theocrats would learn from the Shah’s mischievous ambiguity. The soft, overly-optimistic, post-2006 US national intelligence estimates (NIEs) of the Islamic Republic’s intentions would wrongly conclude “that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” and that it was merely “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
What the Iranians perceived as Russian and American condescension triggered Etemad’s nationalist pride – overriding his opposition to nuclear proliferation. Etemad did not understand why other countries could wield this power – but not his. He spent the late 1970s developing Iran’s nuclear capacity as fully as he could – until political rivals accused him of embezzlement in 1978.
Iran’s theocratic revolution deposing the Shah in 1979 derailed Etemad’s program -- temporarily. Forced to go into hiding by the new dictators, smuggled out of his country under an assumed name, Etemad watched the Mullahs shut down the nuclear program – reflecting the successor’s dislike for the predecessor’s pet projects.
Ensconced in France, Etemad taught, researched, consulted – and fought for peace. As co-chair of “Iranians for Peace” in 2009, he would preach “that no war can contribute to the establishment of liberty and democracy in our country” – opposing the Islamic Republic and its Western enemies simultaneously.
Gradually, the regime acquired its obsession with going nuclear – especially after the Iran-Iraqi bloodbath in the 1980s. Today, without supporting the regime, Etemad endorses his country’s right to be an equal on the world stage with other peers like India and Pakistan. “Iran has every right to pursue nuclear power,” he believes. “It is a matter of national sovereignty.”
As time passed, Etemad also absorbed some of the regime’s agenda, defying the Shah’s friendship with Israel and the United States. But unlike the Mullahs’ ideological revulsion and genocidal aspirations regarding Americans and Israelis, Etemad’s hostility echoes his career’s central melody line of his career – a quest for Iranian pride. “All my life my father was my model,” he explains. “I try to do what I imagined he would do.”
Absolving the regime of any responsibility, he resents American and Israeli defensive muscle-flexing against the regime’s threats as offensive. “They [Iranians] need to be a power in the Middle East,” he insists. “Israel has the bomb, Pakistan has the bomb. India has the bomb. Russia has the bomb.”
Etemad’s life highlights the multi-dimensional motivations fueling Iran’s nuclear preoccupation. Understanding the ideology of this anti-Ayatollah, pro-Iranian-nuclear nationalist suggests that, especially after decades of tensions with the West and a pursuit of fissile missiles by Iran, the binary most insiders project onto Iranians may not hold. Many Iranians who hate the Mullahs may still like their country’s nuclear program.
Etemad’s life, therefore, also offers a dual warning behind those “if-only-then-ners” who are so sure that “if we only” hang tough with the Iranians – or ‘if we only” play ball with them –then peace will follow. History, like national identity, is just not that malleable – or predictable.
Gholam Reza Afkhami, The Life and Times of the Shah, 2009.
Abbas Milani, Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran 1941-1979, 2008.
Mohammad Homayounvash, Iran and the Nuclear Question: History and Evolutionary Trajectory, 2016.