Iran’s Nuclear Vision Initially Glimpsed at Institute

The young Iranians arrived in Cambridge in the summer of 1975, part of a historic venture between their government and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to train the first generation of Iranian nuclear scientists. The program began as a symbol of friendship but quickly became a lesson in unintended consequences.

Four years later, the Shah of Iran fell, replaced by an Islamic theocracy that Washington considers an enemy to this day. The stunned students, who had expected to help the shah build a vast network of nuclear power plants, had to choose between America and Iran. Their decisions may have changed the course of history.

At least three have spent their careers building the Iranian nuclear program that Washington is now fervently trying to curtail, according to a Globe investigation that tracked down 28 of the program’s 35 graduates.

One graduate — Mansour Haj Azim SM ’77, remembered by classmates as quiet and studious — was a leader of Iran’s nuclear program and, according to one widely cited report, the supervisor of a suspected weapons-related site.

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the graduates are working in the United States, some of them in the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and for American defense contractors.

Two of them died, one in a car crash in the United States and the other reportedly executed in Iran for forbidden political activity.

The story of the graduates offers a larger perspective on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and America’s looming nuclear standoff with Iran. The students arrived in Massachusetts at a time of great optimism about nuclear energy but grew to middle age amid fears of proliferation — particularly in their native country.

“It was a wonderful program,” said Mohammad “Moe” Moghimi SM ’77, who now lives in Newton and teaches at Middlesex Community College. Had history been different, he said, “We would have had five or six nuclear power plants functioning in Iran by now, or maybe more.”

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice frequently questions why Iran would need nuclear reactors when it has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.

But in 1974, US officials made the opposite argument, urging Iran to invest its windfall oil profits in expensive US nuclear technology, according to former MIT students and professors and letters found in the MIT and State Department archives.

“There was a push to say, ‘Hey, now you have a lot of money but the oil is going to run out eventually. Why don’t you build nuclear power plants?”’ recalled Marvin M. Miller, a professor who taught some of the Iranian students.

Mohammad H. Kargarnovin SM ’79, a graduate of the MIT program who now teaches mechanical engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Iran, recalled: “All of a sudden, the [Iranian] government decided to have nuclear power, so in order to operate things, they needed human power and they started to send students for education outside. We were told, ‘You are responsible to take on this, to take the needle from zero to 100.”’

In March 1974, the shah announced plans to build more than 20 reactors — beginning with two at a site called Bushehr — arguing that they would cover domestic energy needs and free up oil for export.

The Nixon administration was so eager to help that it sent Dixy Lee Ray, the chairwoman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, to Tehran in May 1974 to offer up her agency as a “clearinghouse” for Iranian investments, according to a recently declassified State Department memo.

Ray’s team “urged the Iranian side to get on with the job of site selection [for the reactors] as soon as possible,” the memo said.

A few months later, MIT got a request from the shah for a large number of Iranian students to be accepted into the next year’s nuclear engineering class — nearly doubling the size of the graduate program — recalled Edward Mason, then the head of the nuclear engineering department.

Mason said the US government had boundless optimism about nuclear power.

“US officials said one way to have peace [in the Middle East] was to put nuclear reactors there, raise people out of poverty, make the deserts bloom,” he said. “The attitude then was much different than it is today about the potential dangers of somebody diverting plutonium and making weapons. … I taught a course in enrichment, reprocessing, fuel manufacture, and the like. We were teaching [the Iranian students] how to do it, as we were teaching people from all over the world.”

Later that year, MIT agreed to admit the Iranian students for a three-year master’s program in which they could get hands-on experience with MIT’s research reactor.

In exchange, Iran would pay more than half a million dollars to cover the costs of extra professors and classroom space. The Iranian students also agreed to serve at least two years at the Atomic Energy Organization.

The deal was struck after the end of the regular admissions process, so MIT professor Kent F. Hansen flew to Tehran to select the students out of a group chosen by the Iranian government.

Their unusual admissions process, and Iran’s hefty payments, sparked a debate on MIT’s campus. A student referendum voted against the special program, and the issue was hotly debated at three faculty meetings.

Noam A. Chomsky, an outspoken opponent on the faculty, said in an interview that the program amounted to “leasing the nuclear engineering department to the shah in exchange for an unspecified amount of money.”

Hansen, however, insists that MIT never relaxed its standards. Yet when the first students arrived on campus many were dismayed by the feeling that Iran had purchased their place.

“It was kind of discouraging because all of us thought we were the best in the country,” said Farid Bamdad PhD ’84, who now works at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in Washington. He said he studied even harder to prove that he deserved his spot at MIT.

That year, half of all faces were Iranian in many classrooms. But the students still struggled to adjust.

Six immediately switched to business school, Mason said. One dropped out after the first semester. But others stayed on, sometimes studying all night, attending monthly tea-and-cookie gatherings in the nuclear engineering department, and flying to Washington for occasional pep talks at the Iranian embassy.

Some students distinguished themselves, like Roohollah Karimi ScD ’80, who took a legendary load of classes, and Hashem Akbari SM ’77, who was known for studying for hours.

Bamdad said some of his classmates mingled easily with Americans. A small group was more religious, keeping to themselves and taking the Red Line subway to a mosque in Quincy for Friday prayers.

By 1977, however, the program was foundering due to financial disputes. MIT’s chancellor, Paul E. Gray ScD ’60, kept sending bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to records in MIT archives. The Iranian government — perhaps burdened by growing resistance to the shah’s opulent rule — balked at the cost.

Nonetheless, more than a dozen Iranian students remained in Cambridge in February 1979 when the shah’s regime collapsed, succeeded by revolutionary forces devoted to a long-exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The students, realizing that their lives were changing forever, debated the future among themselves.

“Some were more toward Islamic way of thinking — they were happy,” recalled Moghimi. “The others were pro-shah. They were angry. These groups were having discussions all the time.”

Many of the first wave of graduates had already gone back to Iran when the revolution occurred.

“A lot of us wanted to go back and marry an Iranian girl,” said Moghimi, who recalled that he, Azim, Akbari, and Karimi were in Iran around that time.

Moghimi worked briefly at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, where he remembers scientists pouring millions of dollars into expensive, grandiose nuclear research that had few practical applications for either power or weaponry.

“They just wanted to show that they were big, that they were active in the area of nuclear research,” he said.

As the political unrest grew, Moghimi decided to return to MIT to pursue a PhD. He got his visa two days before revolutionaries stormed the US embassy.

Karimi and Akbari — stars of their class — also grew dismayed with the chaos. Karimi changed his first name to Roy and moved to Maryland. Akbari went to California, where he is now a specialist in alternative energy.

But Azim and another MIT student, Mohammad Zaker, stayed in Iran.

At first, their futures seemed dim. After the revolution, all the students got letters saying that their services were no longer needed. The shah’s vision of a nuclear future was too Western for the new Islamic Republic.

The companies that had agreed to build reactors for the shah pulled out, and the US government used its diplomatic leverage to block all sales of nuclear technology. To make matters worse, war broke out with neighboring Iraq, whose forces bombed the still-incomplete Bushehr reactors.

But in the early ‘80s — near the start of the eight-year war with Iraq — Iran began reconstituting its nuclear program. Azim and Zaker rose rapidly through the ranks. Zaker became head of a research reactor in Tehran. Azim became deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization.

Soon, government officials began contacting the former MIT students in the United States, trying to persuade them to return. Bamdad said the Iranian government contacted his brother in Iran, demanding that Bamdad either repay his MIT tuition or serve out his two-year obligation to the Atomic Energy Organization. Bamdad didn’t return.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, who earned his PhD from MIT in the late 1970s but was not part of the special program, approached several of the program’s graduates in America about returning to Iran, Moghimi recalled. It is unclear how many took up the offer. Salehi also rose in the ranks, becoming Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In 1982, Azim visited Moghimi in Boston and offered him a well-paid position in Iran, Moghimi said.

“He said ‘We are going to complete Bushehr,”’ Moghimi recalled. But Moghimi wasn’t interested.

In the early 1990s, the CIA began declaring that Iran was developing a nuclear bomb. A frequently cited 1992 special report in a publication called Mednews named Azim as the supervisor of a secretive weapons-related research center near the Caspian Sea.

But Iranian officials denied any weapons ambitions. One senior official told Harvard University professor Richard Wilson that Iranian scientists were only “trying to continue what they started 25 years ago that they were encouraged to learn at MIT,” Wilson said.

In 1992, Moghimi and Azim met again in Iran, and Moghimi asked his friend, point blank, whether Iran was developing a nuclear weapon.

“He said, ‘No way. They are only nuclear power plants.’ He said, ‘If the Iranian government wanted to do that, it would be suicide,”’ Moghimi recalled. “I believed him.”

Now Moghimi is not so sure, as Iran insists on trying to enrich uranium — which could be used as fuel for nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.

The last time the two men spoke was about three years ago. Although his friend didn’t say it, Moghimi got the impression that Azim was restless. He asked Moghimi for a letter of invitation so he could visit the United States.

Moghimi sent one, but has not heard from Azim since.