Markos Kounalakis

Managing nuclear proliferation – from kidnapping and murder to diplomacy and political will

In this 2010 photo, Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist greets his son Amir Hossein as he arrives at the airport in Tehran, after returning from the United States. Amiri, who was caught up in a real-life U.S. spy mystery and later returned to his homeland, was executed under mysterious circumstances. Amiri was hanged recently.
In this 2010 photo, Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist greets his son Amir Hossein as he arrives at the airport in Tehran, after returning from the United States. Amiri, who was caught up in a real-life U.S. spy mystery and later returned to his homeland, was executed under mysterious circumstances. Amiri was hanged recently. Associated Press file

Nuclear physics is a dangerous profession. It is not just the threat of accidental exposure to radioactive material that is cause for concern, it is a profession that might get you kidnapped or killed.

It might sound like the script of a James Bond or “Hitman” Agent 47 movie, where nuclear scientists or their families are abducted, extorted, held for ransom or just picked off on the street. Oddly, reality now imitates fiction in a gruesome world where nations compete for a nuclear edge and terrorists seek a path to dirty bomb development.

Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri is the latest victim, a conflicted defector to the West who later returned home to his Tehran family. The reunion was short-lived as he recently met an Iranian hangman, convicted of being an American spy.

Amiri, warned by the CIA, should have seen the killing coming.

Unlike Amiri, other nuclear professionals are unaware they are marked men. Earlier this year, a Belgian nuclear official was secretly videotaped by Islamic State members. After Islamist adherent Mohamad Bakkali was arrested for his connection to the Paris “Bataclan” massacre, authorities found he possessed 10 hours of video footage featuring the senior Belgian official at his Flanders home.

Israel is suspected of helping to find and neutralize foreign fission experts. An NBC News report claimed five Iranian nuclear weapons specialists were killed since 2007, executed by a dissident group “financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service.” The means of choice being motorcycle-riding magnetic bomb bearers who attached the explosive devices to a target’s car while in Tehran traffic. It is unclear how many scientists subsequently left Iran’s nuclear development programs for safer teaching positions at a university.

Globally, one nuclear scientist, however, stands out for his despicable spread of nuclear weapon knowledge and material to North Korea, Libya, Iran – possibly even Syria and Saudi Arabia: A.Q. Khan. He is the father of the Pakistani bomb and still revered as a national treasure, even following years of Islamabad house arrest for his dirty deeds.

Khan sold out and made the world a more dangerous place by exporting nuke kits. For years he was in strict detention, surrounded by bodyguards, “for his own safety,” according to a friend. Khan may be alive and free to move about Pakistan, but he is surely tightly monitored and not likely sleeping soundly.

Kidnapping and murder are not the best means for managing nuclear proliferation. Instead, it requires hard work, deft diplomacy, broad vision and political will. But this is a confused moment regarding nuclear weapon policies: The Republican presidential candidate casually muses about the spread of nukes and their use while the Russian president he admires recently prepared to put nuclear forces on high alert during the 2014 Crimean invasion.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama actively advocated and negotiated for a more nuclear weapon-free world. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has long warned of the threat. Reviewing former Defense Secretary William J. Perry’s new book, Brown wrote recently that “few see the incomparably greater danger of ‘nuclear doom’ because it is hidden and out of public consciousness.”

Out of the public consciousness is where nuclear physicists also dwell, their vital discipline starring in a geopolitical tug-of-war and arms race. Whether the targeted keepers of the modern Promethean Fire or the spreaders of its knowledge, nuclear physicists shape our global society’s future.

James Timbie, worked hard to make the world a safer place. Timbie helped bring about an acronym rich set of disarmament treaties: SALT, SALT II, START, New START, INF and the recent JCPOA with Iran. Timbie retired quietly from the State Department this year and is tending to his backyard garden.

A few nuclear professionals are unwillingly retiring earlier and permanently.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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