In Washington and the capitals of Europe there is a lot of hand-wringing these days because Iran may “get the bomb” and become another nation with the capacity to wage thermonuclear war. This is ironic since we are the ones who encouraged Iran to embrace the nuclear age. The United States even trained Iran’s first nuclear scientists.This inconvenient truth goes back to late 1953. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech to the U.N., proposed the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the other nations with nuclear know-how share knowledge of peaceful uses of atomic energy for agriculture, medicine, and electric power. This may be the ultimate example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Where Ike was atoms for peace, the rest of the world saw atoms for power. So over time we shared our knowledge and in return we got nuclear weapons in China, Isarael, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea and now maybe Iran.
A few months before the Atoms for Peace speech, the CIA had engineered the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossaddegh, and had installed in his place Mohammad Reza Shah Palavi, better known as the Shah of Iran. The Shah resurrected the detested Iranian monarchy. Mossaddegh, even though he was elected fair and square by the Iranian people, had committed an unpardonable sin; he had nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Oil is thicker – and more profitable – than all the Western political rhetoric about freedom and democracy. So Mossaddegh had to go.
Fast forward to 1973. Richard Nixon was president. The Arabs and the Israelis had mixed it up in a nasty conflict called the Yom Kippur War. The OPEC nations retaliated with an oil embargo that was more effective than the one they launched after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Some skeptics believe the “crisis” was phony, that it was fabricated to help Western oil corporations, with their massive investments in Middle East oil, get a spike in profits. This would make the pooh-bahs of the Arab oil states richer, too.
Whether that is true or false, it is a fact the Shah of Iran knew who put him in power and he was only too willing to go along with almost anything Washington suggested.
In the early 70s the manufacturers of U.S. nuclear reactors and related components were facing tree-hugger resistance to nuclear power so they were in need of new customers in new places. Protests against nuclear power plants were becoming a serious drag on business.
Enter the Shah of Iran to the rescue. Even though Iran was a major oil producing nation, the Shah and president Nixon decided Iran needed to develop a nuclear power industry in anticipation of the day – some day in the future before the term”peak oil” had even been invented - when it would run out of oil and be desperate for another source of energy.
But Iran had no history of nuclear know-how. So it came to be, with the White House pulling the strings, that one of our most prestigious universities – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – abruptly agreed in 1975 to accept nearly three dozen Iranian students who were tasked with becoming nuclear engineers for the nearly non-existent Iranian nuclear power program.
As luck would have it, the sales of U.S. nuclear reactor equipment to Iran met the same fate as the Shah. But as the Boston Globe reported in 2007, many of the Iranian students sent to MIT remained in the United States while a few returned to Iran where some of them went on to become key figures in Iran’s mad campaign to become a nuclear weapons power under the Islamic theocratic thugs who replaced the Shah’s thugs in 1979.
At the time, MIT seemed to be a reluctant partner in this geopolitical dance. But times have changed. U.S. universities are now routinely complicit in the global arms race through their eager tutelage of foreign students who come here with what can be described as the academic equivalent of only learning how to take off, not to land, in the manner of the hijackers of 9/11.
The University of Michigan, for example, last fall welcomed a few hundred Chinese students to the university’s North Campus to teach them the hard science of nuclear engineering. These students are from the same Communist China that is frequently in the news for being a prime force behind Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and evade Washington’s ineffectual “sanctions.” We are left to wonder how serious the Obama Administration is about tightening the screws on Iran’s nuclear ambitions when they approve a few hundred student visas for advanced nuclear engineering degree candidates from one of Iran’s nuclear weapons enablers.
While the Obama administration huffs and puffs about Iran going nuclear, it’s ironic that Michigan Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, seems blissfully unaware that his state’s namesake university is training Chinese nuclear scientists while he’s complaining about China’s efforts to thwart sanctions against Iran over its nuclear weapons program. “China is the primary obstacle to more stringent United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran,” Levin said in a Senate hearing on March 26, 2010. But then, the University of Michigan is getting a revenue stream from training the Chinese, so it’s convenient to look the other way.
Like the Nixon administration and the nuclear power industry of that era, American higher education sees money to be made in training tomorrow’s madmen.