While the man Israeli intelligence recently outed as the father of Irans nuclear program Mohsen Fakhrizadehbelongs to Irans 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 Irans 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 Etemads lifelong stance as a proud Iranian suggests that even if the Mullahocracy falls Irans 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 Irans nuclear program: Americas president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the 1950s, Eisenhowers 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 countrys oil as a commodity to be sold to others not burned by Iranians. Irans 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 towns grandees. The first was Etemads 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 Irans 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 Irans 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 Shahs 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 Partys rigidity. Still, it showed what Etemad thought of the Shahs 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 Irans 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 wasnt 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 hes strong enough in the region and he can defend our interests in the region [and] he didnt 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, Irans theocrats would learn from the Shahs mischievous ambiguity. The soft, overly-optimistic, post-2006 US national intelligence estimates (NIEs) of the Islamic Republics 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 Etemads 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 Irans nuclear capacity as fully as he could until political rivals accused him of embezzlement in 1978.
Irans theocratic revolution deposing the Shah in 1979 derailed Etemads 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 successors dislike for the predecessors 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 countrys 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 regimes agenda, defying the Shahs friendship with Israel and the United States. But unlike the Mullahs ideological revulsion and genocidal aspirations regarding Americans and Israelis, Etemads hostility echoes his careers 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 regimes 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.
Etemads life highlights the multi-dimensional motivations fueling Irans 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 countrys nuclear program.
Etemads 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.