Particles and persecution: why we should care about Iranian physicists

A simple desire to understand the way the world works has landed some Iranian researchers in hot water.

On a given day, your typical physicist is mainly preoccupied with trying to understand the intimate secrets of the universe. As with most academics, we get to visit one another in parts of the world to discuss our ideas. And as long as our curiosity continues to produce valuable contributions, we’re given the freedom and resources to pursue our academic endeavours.

That is, unless you’re a physicist in Iran. On January 12 2010, as he left for work, Professor Masoud Alimohammadi was assassinated by the blast from a motorcycle bomb detonated outside his car.

His academic research was on quantum field theory and appears to have had no professional connection with any nuclear research and development. He was just sympathetic to the views of the reformist movement in Iran.  

Over the last two years a number of physicists in Iran have suffered similar fates, some involved in nuclear physics research, some not. The most recent was on Sunday May 13. The journal Nature reported:

“Omid Kokabee, an Iranian graduate student who has been imprisoned in Tehran for the past 15 months, was sentenced to 10 years on Sunday for allegedly conspiring with foreign countries against Iran.”

Omid Kokabee faces ten years in jail for communicating with a hostile government. University of Texas

Kokabee was accused and convicted of “communicating with a hostile government” after spending time abroad at the Institute for Photonic Science in Barcelona and the University of Texas in Austin. He had already spent 15 months in prison awaiting trial. He has consistently denied all allegations and no credible evidence was presented against him during the trial. His field of work does not include nuclear physics.

Oppression in Iran is not something we’re unfamiliar with. But it could have implications for the many Iranian physics students in Australia studying in masters and PhD programs. 

Their reasons for studying physics are much like those of other bright young people who are deeply inquisitive. They, too, desire to understand why the world is as we see it. But unlike undergraduate physics students in Australia and abroad, there is pressure brought to bear on the best of these students to direct their efforts into very specific research areas of interest to the Iranian regime.

This might take the form of friendly approaches from government officials. Or it may take the form of “… threats to him and his family”, as Kokabee wrote before his court appearance.

Ethan Hein

The ongoing political tensions within Iran, and between Iran and the international community over its nuclear intentions, has a direct consequence for Iranian physics students, at home and abroad. 

Many physics students pursue their graduate studies abroad. For Iranian students, this takes on an additional imperative: it is one way for talented Iranian students who are uncomfortable with the political climate in their home country to leave.  

There are obvious benefits to the student, as they develop advanced skills in their chosen discipline. But there are also broader benefits to the host university and nation, as they gain access to excellent students who contribute to their research programs and intellectual capital.

Visiting students are also exposed to our political system, warts and all (where rule of law means that it is important, for instance, how our elected representatives spend tax-payers’ or union-members’ money). One might hope that some of these highly capable students do eventually return to Iran, and find themselves in a position to positively influence the future direction of their home country.

Anthony Mattox

In Australia, this possibility is under some threat, through the Autonomous Sanctions Act (2011) which, among other things, restricts enrolment in courses that involve study in nuclear sciences, ballistic missiles, avionics and other military activities. It is difficult to get student visas for Iranians whose proposed graduate research would involve potentially security-sensitive equipment or training. This includes things like moderately high power lasers common to many physics departments.

There is certainly cause to be concerned about the transfer of sensitive skills to the Iranian regime. However, there is also growing wariness on the part of Australian universities to accept Iranian students into their graduate programs due to difficulties in obtaining student visas, and fears of the potential risk of inadvertently breaching the Autonomous Sanctions Act.

Balancing the potential security concerns with the diplomatic, cultural and intellectual benefits of accepting Iranian students to Australia is a question for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to resolve with Australia’s various security agencies.  

But let’s not forget the plight of Mr Kokabee and other Iranian physicists, whose lives and liberties are curtailed because of their scientific curiosity.