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Rebuilding Science in Iraq, One Scientist at a Time
[The following is the text of an interview with Alexander Dehgan, a AAAS Science and Technology Fellow who worked in Iraq this year in a U.S. program designed to direct Iraqi weapons scientists into new scientific careers. The telephone interview was conducted by AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen on 2 September 2004.]
Let's start by setting the context: Long before the war, Iraq had a strong science and engineering culture. What condition was Iraqi science in the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule? In what condition did you find science on your arrival there?
When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi science was in a complete state of disarray. This was due to the devastating effect of three wars on the country's infrastructure, the militarization of the scientific community during the Iran-Iraq war to feed Saddam's military machine, and the continuing militarization of the science sector. But there was a waxing and waning of the scientific community between working on weapons systems and then pulling away from weapons systems, and then working on weapons again. This had a really disruptive effect on the community.
There were also the economic sanctions that applied after what I would call the second Gulf War, but which most people would call the first Gulf War, in 1991. That worked to isolate the scientific community as well. It restricted access to journals and to new laboratory equipment for the universities, to basic materials to carry out science. After this war, there was also a deep suspicion of individuals who had any ties to the West, which only worsened the isolation. And then finally, after the last war, the looting of scientific equipment, where seemingly every piece of equipment was taken or destroyed, dealt the final blow.
One example, I think, of a non-military scientific institution that was hurt was the Baghdad Natural History Museum. In this museum they had dioramas of animals. People came in and destroyed the dioramas, ripping off the head of one of the lions and taking these collections-skins, skulls and skeletons-which are laid out in these collection boxes, dumping the boxes and mixing up the bones, losing a hundred years of collections information. One curator at the museum spent 20 years collecting ectoparasites, which he kept in vials. Well, looters came in and put these vials on a table and destroyed them, one by one, smashing every single vial. They destroyed the entire collection.
That was the status of what I found when I came in there. And you had certain numbers of scientists that were high-level Baath Party members who had been intimately involved with the weapons programs who were sitting at home and doing nothing. Most of the people really weren't engaged. And I realized when I arrived in Iraq with my colleague, Dr. Carl Phillips, that that needed to be our immediate concern. We needed to hit the ground running.
These high-ranking weapons scientists--how important will they be, and how important will other Iraqi scientists and engineers be, in determining Iraq's future stability?
I think the future of the country will depend on two things: the Iraqi leadership and Iraq's economic recovery. I think both of those depend on the scientists. Scientists have to be actively involved in economic recovery. The scientists have to be there to help with developing sources of support for the country, to give individual Iraqis an incentive to prevent the violence that renders apart the country. Most recently, Hussain Shahristani [the Iraqi nuclear physicist and victim of torture under Saddam], who is starting up the new Iraqi National Academy of Sciences, was considered for the post of prime minister. And it is because of his ethics, and because of his resistance to participating in Saddam's weapons programs, and because of his stature as a world-class scientist, that people looked up to him. In these societies, education and being educated-and particularly being educated in engineering, science and medicine-is sort of a status symbol. It gives you the respect of the people, and having that respect allows you to take a leadership role.
For two reasons, I think the worst thing that could happen to the country is if it has a loss of this intellectual capital. First, for security reasons, if these people go to certain rogue regimes where the information can be used-even against Iraq. The other is the loss of rationality in society and the loss of rationality in governance.
The thing that one might infer in what you're saying is that science and engineering could be a bulwark against various types of political and religious extremism.
That's the exact point-rationality, and education in itself, is a barrier against any kind of extremism. That's not to say that science hasn't been misused in the past, and I think one of the things we need to integrate into the scientific culture is the role of ethics in science. And that's applicable not only in Iraq, but all over the world.
Sharistani is a Shia, and he is devout. I don't think there necessarily-there is no conflict between science and religion. Extremism is taking these ideas beyond the point of rationality. I think that's the very thing that makes it extremism in the first place.
Tell me about the program you were involved in. Who launched it? Who developed it? What role did AAAS play in shaping the program, directly or indirectly?
I served as a special adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority for non-proliferation. I implemented an inter-agency program led by the Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction in the Bureau of Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State. This program was originally focused on the Soviet science centers, now the Russian science centers, to take Russian weapons scientists and to provide them with incentives and grants and research funds to work on non-weapons-related research. And so as part of this I worked with the team of Dr. Carl Phillips, who is assistant vice president for research at Texas Tech University and was a Foster Fellow at the State Department; Anne Harrington, Deputy Director for the Office; and Richard Jarvis, the Office's Program Manager, in creating the Iraqi redirection program One of the things we realized when we got on the ground was the context was very different than the context in Russia.
In terms of the role of AAAS, I am actually a scientist at the State Department through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, under what's called a AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship. It's a unique fellowship the purpose of which is to integrate science and technology, the value of science and technology, into foreign policy decisions, and to make use of my background as a scientist in developing policy. That's really important in Iraq, because it's important to relate to scientists and it's important to know how scientists think. These two things are integral to making the program a success.
Was the program just a start-up when you arrived?
Yes. It took some amount of time to get everything into place to allow things to start up. Once we did get going, we had to move quickly. One, because of the impending end of the CPA [in late June] and the second, because a lot of scientists were being given the opportunity to go to rogue regimes, were being contacted by the insurgents. We needed to be sure that we acted quickly to reintegrate these scientists into the reconstruction of Iraq.
Tell me a bit about a typical day for you there.
There were no typical days in Baghdad. I would never say there was a typical day. To give you some examples of what a day could include, it was trying to work between three different administrations: the Coalition Provisional Authority; the State Department-although I was assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority, I had this dual role as a State Department entity and a CPA entity, and they didn't always have perfectly aligned interests; and the third entity was the fledging Iraqi government, which claimed its sovereignty well before June 28. And to get all three of these programs to understand the importance of the redirection program for these scientists and the necessity to build science and technology in Iraq, that's a big part of my day.
Other things would be trying to find a contractor. Trying to find a solid Internet service. Trying to find a generator, because we were trying to build a science center out in the Red Zone [outside the protected Green Zone where many government and military offices are located.] Having lunch with the father of bioweapons in Iraq. Dealing with closed checkpoints when you're locked outside of them. Incoming missiles and rockets. Trying to avoid IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. Training a security team. Trying to deal with the legacy of Saddam Hussein's management techniques when you're trying to develop a professional cadre of staff to staff the science center. Trying to find staff. Trying to find a car that won't identify me as a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
We would interview scientists and work with scientists-essentially, in Iraq under Saddam, the government controlled most aspects of the economy. Most other elements of the economy were at a pretty small scale, so a person could have an auto parts shop. Teaching Iraqi scientists, helping the Iraqi scientists to privatize, to develop some of their ideas, to help fund their ideas to meet markets in the Middle East and to get them to accept these risks-the majority of people in Iraq were civil servants to one degree or another. To get them to break out of that safety net, to get them to take the risks that people take in a capitalist society, to recognize the rewards and dangers of those risks, was something we had to do. Sometimes it was hard just to find a decent plate of General Tso's Chicken in Baghdad-I spent one night doing that.
Every day was different. There would be emergencies. A car bomb was set off next to the house of one of our employees. There were threats that would come up that we would hear about against our center. It was just getting basic things-one of the most difficult things we had to find was a good conference table. And it's hard enough going into a society that has been through three decades of war and trying to find these items. It's even harder when you're in a continuing war zone.
Your background is as a field biologist working with lemurs. You've logged a lot of time in Africa. How did a field biologist with an expertise in lemurs end up doing this work in Iraq?
I think it's a series of chance events that I ended up going over there. I came to the State Department and my original intent was to work on tropical forest conservation. But the situation in the Near East was so pressing that the science adviser to the secretary of State at the time [Norman Neureiter, now director of AAAS's Center on Science, Technology and Security Policy] strongly encouraged me to work for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs as a AAAS Science Fellow. Although I had a number of offers working at these different offices but I decided to take this challenge with Norm Neureiter's encouragement and that of the deputy science adviser, Andy Reynolds.
One thing led to another. But actually it turned out really well. I think field biologists, particularly tropical field biologists, have certain qualities that were very applicable to Iraq. Working in a place like Madagascar, or South America, requires adaptability, creativity, an unhealthy desire, I would say, for complex challenges. An ability to deal with difficult conditions, isolation. And an ability to work with the local people, which I think is really necessary. And then I think there's a certain mix of bravado, courage and dementia-the Indiana Jones complex-that allows you to jump in a car and drive into a war zone to meet some scientists.
This sort of begs the larger question: OK, so why did the Department of State and the other members of the interagency process, such as the Department of Defense, put faith in myself and in Carl Phillips, whose also was a science fellow, to manage something so crucial that we invaded the country over the potential threat we felt these weapons had posed? Why didn't they choose someone from the Foreign Service? Why didn't they choose somebody from the military to implement this? And actually, I think it was a really brilliant idea because I think the success of the project depended on understanding how scientists think. That was the first key. The second was that as scientists we appear as neutral arbitrators. We're detached, or at least on some levels, others view us as being detached from the policy process as denizens of the ivory tower. Third, Carl and I were temporary employees of the State Department. Our intent is not to stay at the State Department for the long term. We're not burdened by career advancement concerns. We can take the risks that allow us to make this program successful in the face of sometimes considerable opposition.
We were also helped by the fact that we had a flexible funding source through the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund and that could allow us to spend money quickly on scientific projects. And we worked with a really courageous team back at the State Department in the Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction.
You talk about a bomb going off outside of your staffer's house in Baghdad. You talk about the need to get a car that wouldn't identify you as an employee of the CPA, and threats that were made against your science center. Were you working in fear of your life while you were there?
I think that to be able to work in Baghdad-I spent nearly every day working outside of the Green Zone, in the area I call the Red Zone-you had to compartmentalize. There are risks you can control and there are random chance events that you cannot control. What you do is take all the precautions to minimize risks you can control and you have to literally put aside fear of events you can't. You have to think like a scientist. The statistical chance of getting hit by a mortar or car bomb-the chances of that happening, those random risks, are pretty low. So you don't think about those things. The University of Chicago was a far scarier place in my opinion.
What people within the Green Zone who didn't leave it on a regular basis didn't understand is that Baghdad is a city of 4 million people where people try to live an ordinary life. There are parts of the city that you wouldn't normally go to, just like there are parts of any American city that you don't go into at night. You don't routinely go for a walk in Sadr City. But there are people who are living their lives, every day, visiting relatives, shopping for food, going to work. You can make use of this reality to travel around the city, by integrating into it, and by doing things that most people wouldn't think you would do. One of the most reassuring signs I ever saw while I was in Baghdad was that someone opened up an éclair shop. It was an éclair shop that could've been in Soho-London or New York-that produced these magnificent pastries. And it was beautiful and it was architecturally well-designed. I realized that someone is not going to put this much time into opening something like this unless they have faith in the future. And so you adopt that faith that the Iraqis have.
Who were the scientists you were dealing with? Were they all weapons scientists? Did they tend to be Baathists? Were they Baathists as a matter of practical necessity, or was there a real allegiance there?
Not all the scientists were Baath Party members. Many scientists weren't. One of the mistakes people have made with regard to the Baath Party was that they compare it to the Nazis, rather than comparing it to the Communist Party, which I think is the more appropriate example. People joined the Baath Party for career advancement. There was a restriction, under the CPA, against hiring people from the four highest levels of the Baath Party. People on the fourth level, although that was one of the prohibited levels, any scientist joined it because that was what was necessary to become a director of some companies-there were a lot of companies under the military-industrial commission-or for career advancement. People had different degrees of adherence to the Baath Party that they adopted. They were looking at moving ahead.
The scientists who our program targeted, because our source of funding was for non-proliferation, were scientists who worked on biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, or their delivery systems. And though we first started off with PhD scientists, we also recognized the importance of integrating engineers and technicians who were integral to building these systems. These scientists all had different degrees of involvement. Some people were directly involved in the program. Other people were doing research in the universities, or technical institutes, and did not fully understand the role that they may have been playing in some of these processes.
One of the key components necessary for redirection is to have a working scientific community to redirect scientists into. So one of our goals was not only to support weapons scientists, but to support and rebuild the infrastructure of the scientific community in Iraq. For that reason, we had to work closely with the Minister of Science and Technology in Iraq. We had to work closely with the other ministries, such as the Ministry of Health and Agriculture, to support development of a scientific community. And many of these scientists were enthusiastic to do so because they wanted to partake in the reconstruction of their country.
I worked hard with the support of the State Department to convince the Iraq Governing Council, the de-Baathifaction committee of the interim Iraq government, and the Coalition Provisional Authority, that we needed to hire Baathists. One of the first laws that [CPA Administrator L. Paul] Bremer had issued was on removing Baath Party members from the government. In the case of the scientists, I think the worst thing you would want would be people who had this overall vision of the weapons program, and detailed technical expertise, sitting at home without a salary.
Did you find that these scientists were hostile to you, at least initially?
We had to gain their trust. Under Saddam's system, if you had contact with foreigners, you were persecuted. If you stood out from the rest, you faced the risk of death under Saddam. And we had to overcome these barriers-the same barriers that led to the isolation of the community also were barriers for us as well. There were also concerns on their part that we were somehow related to the intelligence community when in fact we weren't-nothing could be further from the truth. Carl and I are both mammologists. So we had to overcome these barriers. And one of the ways we did that is that we made sure that the way in which our science center was run and the rules in which we went about working with the scientists were made absolutely clear to everyone. Transparency was especially important in explaining to the scientists exactly what we were doing. We had the added advantage that the redirection program was working for the reconstruction of the country.
Was it a part of your job to find information about weapons of mass destruction? Was that inevitable, a sort of process of osmosis? Did you glean any information about the pre-war state of Iraq WMD programs?
Our concern was more with intellectual capital than it was with the materials. And as such we were more concerned about the future of the country that we were about the past. I was actually pretty happy not to have to worry about that question. My end of it-what I actually had to worry about, because of the source of funding for the program that I was running-was, did these scientists have a direct role with weapons programs in the past? Because I set no date as to when in the past they were involved with weapons programs, that was the only threshold they had to cross.
In answer to the question, I had to find out about the personal histories of the scientists. I had to talk to them about what their research was on. And to the extent that their research had some sort of direct or indirect connection to weapons, they could be included in our program. I thought to draw that net broadly. Many people had roles which they did not realize. Many people trained scientists who were involved in all the weapons programs, but they themselves were not involved. They did possess the necessary knowledge. So these were people we would want integrated into our program. Because what we wanted to do is provide them with incentives to participate in the reconstruction of their country. Building more weapons doesn't do that.
You're a Persian-American. You were born in Iran; your father and mother came from Iran in the early 1970s. And in part because of the enormously destructive and lethal war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, there has been a lingering animosity between the people of the two nations. Was it awkward for you to be working with some of the same scientists who may have been involved in the creation and employment of weapons systems that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians?
Obviously, it was something that was on my mind before I went over there. It was something I was concerned about-how would I be seen by these scientists? What would they think of me? What would I think of them? The first thing I would say is that these programs to build these weapons were driven by fear. Saddam had set these up and people who participated faced dire consequences if they didn't participate. Shahristani was tortured and imprisoned for refusing to participate. There are some people who did it for money, but there were other people who had less of a choice. That being said, the fear I had before I went into Iraq evaporated when I got there.
I could relate to these people as scientists. Even though many of the things that some of these scientists had worked on were awful things-and this is part of the reason I believe the role of ethics in the country will be very, very important because there are certain responsibilities you take on as a scientist-many of them became my friends. I got to know them and their families and I got to understand what they had been through. The war against Iran was a war that had been started by Saddam. Iraq had invaded Iran. And so I think many of the animosities that people viewed between these countries were actually not there. Iraqi society is probably closer to Iranian society in many ways than Iraqi society is to Kuwaitis, their neighbors to the south, or to the Saudis or the Egyptians. Farsi shares many words with Iraqi Arabic, which is different than modern standard Arabic. There are a lot of shared elements to the culture.
There was a story in Science in June that mentioned an underground competition for the Iraqi weapons scientists-you mentioned it too, earlier in our conversation. How often does it happen that Iran or other countries in the Middle East, or countries further away, are trying to recruit these weapons experts for purposes that may be nefarious? How much of a risk of proliferation does that create?
The scientists are clearly being approached. They're being approached by scientists within the country, and from outside of the country as well. The insurgents, not really having anything the scientists would want, want the scientists to help them. But the scientists don't want this. The Iraqi people don't want what the insurgents want.
In terms of the risk of proliferation, I believe it's the knowledge rather than the materials that is the major risk to security, and I think the risk is substantial. Iraq is one of the great centers of science in the Middle East. The University of Baghdad in the 1950s was one of the best universities in the Middle East. These scientists, before the sanctions regime, were leaders in their field. I think they would be very much desired in terms of what information they have and I think their departure would be a serious risk for weapons proliferation. It also posed a serious risk in terms of the stability of the country because of the loss of their leadership potential and their ability to contribute to reconstruction.
Given the scope of the programs and the reclamation and rebuilding that are needed, wouldn't this be an extraordinarily expensive proposition, and one that takes a long time?
The way that you limit expenses is that you give responsibility to the Iraqi people. They've had to do this themselves in the past. You work with them and use the ingenuity they have to be able to reduce the costs of what you've got to do. It's a monumental task. Because we are not rebuilding just from one war-one short war-and the looting that happened afterward. We are rebuilding from many, many years of what went on under Saddam's leadership. We are rebuilding for decades, for many years of what has gone wrong in this country.
I have one short story. At the third meeting of this scientific advisory council that advised the science center we were sitting around the table and I was trying to get the Iraqis to prioritize what they believed were the most important projects that they needed to work on. And people kept giving me projects that were really of the most interest to that particular scientist rather than projects that would really be beneficial to the country. And then half way through the meeting I realized that the real problem wasn't the Iraqis, the real problem was the fact that I was sitting at the table. I excused myself and went out for an hour and a half and I asked them to give me a list of what they felt the priorities and how they'd address those priorities when I came back.
It was phenomenal-they broke themselves into groups, divided by discipline, and came up with a list of challenges that they needed to address and indicated how their scientific expertise could be used. At that point I recognized that the whole problem had been me.
In what way were you the problem? Was it a question of whether they trusted you?
I don't think it's a question of trust. They trusted me by being there in the center. In the first meeting of the scientific advisory council, there was automatic gunfire all around our building. We moved all the scientists into this safe room and then we found out it was just celebratory fire because some local leader had gotten a post and his people were celebrating. Meanwhile I've got all these scientists, this large council group, stuffed into one room. Our guards are on the roof patrolling the boundaries with their weapons drawn, people are running through the center, it was chaotic. This emphasizes that if we had been under attack, how vulnerable we could have been. That's how much of a risk these scientists were taking to participate in our program. They trusted us by working with us, even though that could be a death sentence for them.
I think it had more to do with the fact that they were deferring to me and the leadership role I had within the science center. But really what they needed to do was to have someone who didn't have any rank among them-at the scientific advisory council, they were all of equal rank. You needed to have the thing that makes science in the Western world beneficial, which is the freedom of discussion and debate among scientists. That is the hallmark of science in the West-the scientific method and independence of thought and the right to argue for a perspective you believe in as a scientist, and to document it with facts. That's what makes science-something that's built on merit and independence of thought. And I think that under Saddam Hussein, this was something that was taken away from them.
What are the greatest challenges the Iraqi science and engineering community face in the months and years ahead?
I think the challenges are many. There are two ways of thinking about this problem. You can list specific things that the scientific and technical community in Iraq needs to address, and these are challenges faced by the country as a whole. But you can also think about it in terms of the challenges to rebuilding the science and engineering community in the country. It is clear that we need to work on the power structure, on sanitation, on the environment, which has been used as a weapon in last 15 years. We need to work on building an economy that provides stability and incentives for the Iraqi people to participate in their country. Science and technology will play an integral role in developing these things. We need to rebuild Iraqi agriculture. Iraq has a serious problem with salinization of its soil and ground water. We need to reclaim the marshes that were drained by Saddam Hussein as a weapon against the people of the South.
The challenges I see going directly to community are related to the scientific and technological community itself. We need to reinvigorate the scientific culture that is based on merit, transparency, and independence of scientific thought and overcome what has happened under the previous regime.
Second, I think we need to unite the community to work on the rebuilding of the country and addressing the substantial problems I mentioned, such as the environment.
Third, I think we have an incredible task to rebuild and equip Iraq's laboratories, universities and scientific institutions, like the Natural History Museum, which is a center for ecology and evolution and conservation. The key is this must be more than the donation of equipment or the building of schools. It has to extend to developing programs that allow us to reintegrate weapons scientists, non-weapons scientists, and reclaim Iraq's lost generation of science students, to achieve the basic goals of the reconstruction process.
Fourth, we have to reintegrate Iraq's scientific and technical community into the greater global scientific community. This means that our global scientific societies and our universities must reach out to Iraqi scientists as collaborative partners, as host institutions for cultural exchange. I think these exchanges must run both ways. I think we need to send scientists to Iraqi universities to share ideas but also so that we have an idea of what they are going through. And we need to provide training for graduate students, because right now they have no opportunities within their country.
Finally, we must work to integrate ethics into the scientific community. Again, this is a challenge and responsibility not limited to Iraq, but which we face in the United States and other countries. One thing we tend to do is we lie to ourselves as scientists that our actions don't bear any consequences beyond the laboratory. And I think the reality is that we uphold the public trust in exchange for the freedom that we have as scientists to study questions that are integral to me, to search for truth in the physical, biological and chemical world. We have to understand the potential consequences of our research, both good and bad. And then, probably most importantly, we must educate the public about our findings and to work to integrate those findings into the fabric of our society.
How much passion do you find among the scientists for this work of rebuilding? I can't help but think that they're exhausted-mentally exhausted, spiritually exhausted-and that there might be a fair number of them who are overwhelmed by cynicism.
The Iraqi scientists and Iraqi people are great survivors. They are people who have unbelievable potential because of their flexibility and their ability to adapt to extremely difficult circumstances that they've endured over the last three wars. They have lived and have had to deal with an unbelievable amount of fear. You asked me if I was afraid-I got to go back to the Green Zone at night. The Iraqis liveoutside of the Green Zone. They've lived through wars, they lived through Saddam Hussein and his regime. They lived through a lot of terror-Saddam Hussein used weapons against his own people and he tortured his own people. They survived all of these things. They were very adaptable. Sometimes depending on the whims of the government, a factory that was producing chemical weapons had to produce paint, a factory that was producing explosives would have to produce agricultural products, fertilizers. People had to go back and forth between these roles and play these games.
So the Iraqi people are unbelievably adaptable. Do some of them want to leave the country and go to the West? Sure, some of them are tired. But many are them are courageous, hard-working people that want to see the reconstruction of their country, and they want to see Iraq reclaim its role as a leader of science in the Middle East. And I think they have substantial potential to do so.
Are you likely to go back to Iraq?
I would like to go back to Iraq because of the hope that I can bring to these people, and because of the inspiration I've gotten from these people. I hope to have a chance to continue to work on environment, technology and science issues.