Throughout most of the 20th century, Iraq was the most important scientific power in the Arab world. Back then, it was endowed with a state-of-the-art nuclear program and a real scientific elite that fed Western universities. But today, the country stands in the shadow of its past. The reasons for this sudden decline are Saddam Hussein’s regime and, more recently, ISIS.

Iraqi science in the 20th century

The most important achievement in Iraqi science in the 20th century was its nuclear program. It was launched in the 1960s in Tuwaitha and was supported by the Soviets, who supplied a nuclear reactor in Baghdad in 1967. This development started the most prosperous period in the country’s scientific progress. It would last two decades, according to a very extensive survey published in Smithsonian Magazine on May 29, 2018. Support from North America and then the Soviet Union, as well as financing from the country’s oil boon, turned Iraq into a scientific power on par with significantly wealthier nations, well until the late 1980s.

Starting in 1920, Iraqi scientists were trained in the best foreign universities, a move initially promoted by British colonial rule and later, from 1932 onwards, by Arab politicians eager to see the country assert its autonomy. When the scientists returned to Iraq, they brought their knowledge and expertise to a variety of domains including agriculture, health and engineering. Following the 1958 coup d’état that overthrew the monarchy, food security became the country’s new chief goal. Scientists executed their will.

Saddam Hussein, first death toll to Iraqi science

Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power in 1979 put a swift halt to this scientific expansion. The Iraqi dictator used science for political and, notably, military purposes. The existing knowledge and programs were reoriented to increase the country’s military strength. Scientists had no choice but to comply with the new order, or they risked ending up in prison. Most significantly, Saddam Hussein militarized the nuclear program, which had previously existed as a civilian program.

When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, the nuclear research centers were destroyed by American forces (see the above image taken by the AIEA), who went on to impose an embargo on Iraq. Iraqi science – then perceived as a threat because of Saddam Hussein’s expansionist will – was completely sidelined, as this 2003 article by The Scientist explains. To survive the embargo, Saddam Hussein ordered scientists reorient their work towards the production of substitute goods and the reconstruction of the country.

Exile

In 2003, the American invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein. Many scientists then fled the country to escape the violence engulfing the country as well as the destruction of scientific institutions. Scientific training had already been suffering since 1991, but it further deteriorated during this time, Science magazine reports. Then another coup struck the country, this time staged by ISIS, who took over parts of the West and North. More scientific institutions were destroyed, including the University of Mosul. Meanwhile, scientists caught by ISIS were forced to either work for the terrorist organization, or be killed. This new surge of violence led to a new wave of exile within the scientific community. In June 2009, the government called exiled scientists to return home to help rebuild the nation. Estimates suggest up to 350,000 Iraqis with university degrees currently live abroad, China Daily reports.

Today, science is the key driver behind Iraq’s reconstruction, according to UNESCO. Scientists’ return and improved training are key elements that will allows the country to reclaim its technological eminence, and see its economy recover to pre-1991 and pre-Saddam Hussein levels. Hussain al-Shahristani, one of Iraq’s most prominent nuclear physicists, said it best in an interview with the Smithsonian: “Iraq has contributed to human civilization and may be able to do it again. When? Who knows. The country faces great challenges. But if international institutions can create more opportunities for young Iraqi scientists, then science can be of great help.”