Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocketman Falls to Earth

Having been threatened with dismissal by his own government and declared a security threat to U.S. interests by the Clinton administration, Yury Savelyev, the rector of the controversial Baltic State Technical University, is unapologetic about his aim to transfer rocket technology to Iran, enabling that country to build its own nuclear missiles that could reach as far as the United States. In a recent interview with New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler, the rocket scientist discussed his reasons for teaching Iranian students the tricks of his trade. Drawings by Svetlana Tverdokhlebova.


One of the country's leading missile scientists, Yury Savelyev, was always more than willing to teach advanced rocket-building to Iranian engineers, who are said to be working on missiles that will be able to reach most Middle Eastern capitals, and even Alaska.

When government officials tried to stop him four years ago because Russia had signed an international agreement to control the spread of ballistic missile technology, Savelyev persisted.

As the rector of St. Petersburg's famous Baltic State Technical University, he developed a program to teach students from a leading Iranian university courses in advanced physics, metallurgy and the behavior of gases and fluids under high pressure and temperature - all disciplines essential to building rockets.

This was done with the full knowledge of the Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service, he said.

Then in February, after complaints from the Clinton administration, Savelyev was ordered to shut down the program. He was summoned to Moscow by the Education Ministry, where he was reprimanded and threatened with dismissal for concealing the educational program that was under way both here and in Iran.

"I really have big problems," he said, seated near a display cabinet where he keeps a portrait of Iran's late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "I now have as my antagonists the Russian government and the American government and I think one way or the other, they will find a way to fire me from the post of rector."

As concerns mount in the United States and Israel that Iran's secretive missile and nuclear weapons programs could pose new threats in the region, the case of Savelyev illustrates the behind-the-scenes cooperation between the Russian and American governments to stem the flow of missile technologies to Iran.

But at the same time, it also reveals the deep-seated resistance within the Russian military and security establishment against abandoning its "strategic" role in cultivating clients and lucrative contracts for transferring military science and technology. "I would tell you honestly that I wanted to work with them," Savelyev said of his Iranian contacts, "and I would be teaching Iranians rocket technology today if I could because otherwise I would have my professors going to the market to sell fruits and vegetables to earn a living."

In a lengthy interview, Savelyev defended his activities, saying he was unfairly disciplined because of his hard-line nationalistic views and because he has become a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin's cooperation with the United States on arms control initiatives. Savelyev contends that such cooperation will weaken Russia's own rocket forces and will alienate Iran.

"I believe there is nothing more important than having Iran as our ally," he said, "because if we fell into a state of animosity with Iran, the whole of Central Asia could be lost to the influence of the Islamic world." He also argues that if Russia does not help Iran build medium-range ballistic missiles, "North Korea and China are ready to offer Iran help with new rocket programs."

Last month in Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin singled out Savelyev as a threat to U.S. security interests.

In announcing that the United States was lifting the sanctions it had applied to several Russian organizations suspected of providing assistance to Iran's ballistic missile program, including Baltic State, Rubin said a ban on all contact or educational exchanges with Savelyev "personally" would remain in force.

"The rector is believed to have violated Russian export controls and attempted to export goods or services that could contribute to missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction," Rubin said.

Savelyev denied this allegation, saying he never transferred more than a good education in basic science.

"Can Newton's law of gravity be taught to Iranian students?" he asked with a defiant tone. "Because if you don't know the laws of gravity, you cannot build rockets."

Today, Savelyev, 62, is still in the rector's office at Baltic State, one of the country's most prestigious scientific centers.

"I have been a rocket builder all my life," he said, "and many of the leading Russian rocket builders have graduated from this university," whose laboratories were shrouded in secrecy until 1991 and, even today, remain off limits to foreigners.

One of the most famous graduates of Baltic State was the late Vladimir Utkin, who designed the country's most fearsome land-based strategic rocket, the SS-18 "Satan," whose payload of 10 independently targetable warheads spawned fears in the West that Moscow would mount a preemptive nuclear strike to wipe out American missile fields and then try to force an American surrender or even to contemplate riding out a nuclear war.

Savelyev's relationship with Iran began in mid-1996, when he received a telephone call from an Iranian diplomat in Moscow who said he wanted to discuss an educational proposal.

"I can say that at that time, they were more concerned with preparing specialists in rocket construction" than any general education, he said.

Days later Savelyev greeted an Iranian delegation here that included two rocket experts from Iran's Defense Ministry, as well as an Iranian intelligence officer.

The meeting resulted in a handwritten agreement to train Iranian scientists in rocketry, but when Savelyev forwarded the document to the Education Ministry in Moscow, the program was rejected because only a year before the government had signed the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement by more than two dozen nations to control the spread of missile technology.

"Nevertheless, the Iranians still wanted to have their students study here," he said, and by the fall of 1996, "we welcomed 26 Iranian students" to study for undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering and general science courses.

In early 1997, Israeli officials warned the Clinton administration that a number of Russian organizations were assisting Iran's missile program and U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that as many as 20 such firms and institutes, including Baltic State, were involved.

Savelyev denies the charge, but he added that he believed that the original handwritten agreement he signed with Iran in 1996, though never carried out, fell into the hands of Western intelligence.

Shortly after the initial group of Iranian students graduated from Baltic State in April 1998, new concerns arose in the United States. A special panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated that Iran's missile program had made significant strides and might be able to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

Then, in late July that year, Iran created a sensation in the Middle East by test-firing a medium range ballistic missile prototype, the Shahab-3, that could carry a 675-kilogram warhead 1,280 kilometers.

Russia, under pressure from Washington, announced that it was investigating Baltic State and eight other organizations for exporting technologies that potentially could have military uses. Throughout the spring of 1998, Savelyev said, Baltic State's undergraduate program for Iranian students was thoroughly investigated by a commission that included representatives of the Defense and Education ministries and the general staff of the armed forces, military prosecutors and the Federal Security Service.

"They reached the conclusion that Baltic State was not teaching anything related to rocket construction," Savelyev said. But he was told that if he wanted to continue teaching Iranian students he would have to draw up a detailed course list and submit it to Moscow for approval.

That summer, he and his staff drew up a course list of 111 specialized subjects that Baltic State wanted to offer to foreign students as a useful additional source of income for the university.

Each course outline ran more than 40 pages, and the government commission spent nine months reviewing it before approving all but 12 subjects that could have military applications, Savelyev said. Among the rejected courses were the study of "fuse technology," the design of "anti-tank rockets" and "ignition and explosives."

Armed with this approval, Savelyev sent out advertisements to universities in Iran, China, Syria, India and Vietnam offering to train graduate students in advanced sciences of metallurgy, gas and fluid dynamics in conditions of high-temperature and pressure and other disciplines that could be considered the basics of rocket science. Three Iranian universities responded, but Savelyev said that two of them were on a secret list of 305 organizations in Iran with whom state universities are forbidden to have contact.

"The government sent this list to our university, but I had the feeling that this list was prepared by the CIA," he said.

What was not on the list was K.N. Toosi University of Technology in Tehran, Iran, whose dean, S.N. Mousavi, was eager to have his graduate students in mechanical engineering study under Russian professors.

Without informing the government, Savelyev flew to Tehran in September 1999 and signed an agreement with Mousavi to begin training the first 17 Iranian students immediately.

Throughout last fall and up until February, about two dozen Russian professors shuttled from Baltic State to Iran to teach courses in three-week segments, for which they were paid $1,000 each trip.

But a month into the program, the United States again intervened. In an October 1999 letter from Vice President Al Gore to Putin, who was then the prime minister, the Clinton administration complained that Russia was failing to take action against institutions that were still assisting Iran's missile program. Savelyev said the letter was read to him by a member of Putin's staff.

On Dec. 20, the Federal Service for Currency and Export Control opened a formal investigation that concluded two months later that Baltic State was indeed transferring expertise that could be useful to Iran's missile program and, therefore, was contrary to national interests.

The deputy director of the export control agency, Sergei Yakimov, issued an order to Baltic State on Feb. 11 to shut down the program. Now, three months later, the professors who worked on the Iran program are back teaching Russians.

Last month, Vladimir Filippov, the education minister, publicly rebuked Savelyev, saying he "was given a severe reprimand and a warning" for violating a "whole series" of secret orders from the ministry pertaining to educational services to Iran.

But even as Savelyev was being disciplined, the Defense Ministry was defending the program for Iranian students. A top defense official argued that the investigation of Savelyev did "not contain evidence of violation of Russian legislation on military-technical cooperation and export control."

First Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov stated, in a letter to the export control ministry, "The Defense Ministry does not see danger to the security of the Russian Federation in education of foreign citizens including the citizens of Iran."

The university's program of courses for Iranian students was carefully screened by the Defense Ministry and other experts, he said, and added, "On the whole, the higher education of foreign citizens in Russian language and Russian technical standards is extremely useful for Russia in strategic terms."