Reining in Iran’s Scientists

3 minutes read time
An Iranian technician works at a Uranium Conversion Facility south of the capital Tehran, Iran.
An Iranian technician works at a Uranium Conversion Facility south of the capital Tehran, Iran.

Reining in Iran’s Scientists

Last month, the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury announced new sanctions on Iran, in what amounts to a cautionary message to scientists in Iran who may consider working for the regime. In the announcement, the United States warned that any scientists lending a hand to the regime’s proliferation activities could find themselves on the losing end of a gamble they are making with their professional careers.

Specifically, the sanctions designated 31 individuals and entities under Executive Order 13382, which targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, WMD delivery systems, and their supporters. The 14 individuals and 17 entities designated are all linked to Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research – also known by its Farsi acronym, SPND.

SPND, founded in 2011, has employed up to 1,500 individuals, many of whom continue to carry out dual-use research and development activities. These activities can be useful for developing weapons delivery systems. Further, SPND’s subordinate organizations spend millions of dollars each year on a broad spectrum of defense projects. SPND scientists perform proliferation- sensitive research and experiments, and SPND continues to use subsidiary organizations, front companies, and procurement agents to acquire dual-use items from third-country suppliers. Ominously, moreover, SPND’s is run by the former head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Sanctioned individuals and entities, in addition to having any U.S. assets blocked, will be denied access to the U.S. financial system. Further, non-Americans who provide support to these individuals could also be subject to sanctions.

These designations are part of our ongoing campaign of unprecedented economic pressure to change the Iranian regime’s behavior.

Individuals working for Iran’s proliferation-related programs – including scientists, procurement agents, and technical experts – should be aware of the risks to which they expose themselves. 

They may be subject to sanctions that would prevent them from doing things such as sending money to relatives in the United States. What’s more, their names will be linked to Iran’s WMD program, making them international pariahs. Iran’s next generation of scientists has two paths: they can use their skills pursuing noble work outside of the WMD realm, or they can work for Iranian proliferation organizations and risk being sanctioned.

While these sanctions continue the U.S. efforts to exert maximum pressure on the Iranian regime, the United States will continue to work in partnership with allied countries to prevent the global proliferation of WMD. We know from the recently revealed Iranian nuclear archive that the regime cannot be trusted with nuclear capabilities. And as long as Iran continues its proliferation activities, the United States will continue to address Iran’s proliferation and other malign behavior that threatens international peace and security.

About the Author: Mary Lindsay serves in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation's Office of Strategic Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of State.