Israel and Iran Unlikely Partners in Physics Project

The two strange bedfellows sit side by side at particle accelerator parley, vow funding for cutting-edge venture.

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Representatives of Israel, Iran, the United States and a host of Muslim and European countries met last week near the Dead Sea in Jordan to discuss the completion of an advanced particle accelerator just 30 kilometers from Israel. If completed, the accelerator will mark the culmination of 15 years of cooperation between unlikely scientific allies.

The conference was organized by SESAME - Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East - a UNESCO-supported organization dedicated to furthering scientific collaboration in the region. Also at the meeting were representatives of Turkey, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad / Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: AP

The Turkish, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian delegates have announced they will donate a combined $20 million toward the research center. Israel, Jordan and Egypt have each pledged $5 million, though each conditioned that support on Turkish participation, which has now been promised, pending on formal approval.

SESAME Council President Chris Llewellyn-Smith told Haaretz yesterday that he is "99 percent certain" the formal approvals will not be a hindrance.

Iran announced that it, too, would raise funds for the project, and Palestinian officials spoke of coming up with up to $2 million of their own.

Llewellyn-Smith described the countries' agreement as a breakthrough. "When we ask for money from the European Union, we're asked about the commitment of the council member states. That's why this agreement is extremely important," he said, noting that Israel was the first country to come up with the promised funds.

An additional $15 million is needed to complete the accelerator, but Llewellyn-Smith said European countries and the United States had shown a willingness to support the project financially as well. Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director of the European nuclear research body (known by the acronym CERN ) and a participant at the council meeting, also stressed Europe's interest in getting the research center operational.

The Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee and the Finance Ministry are expected to split the $5 million called for by the agreement over five years.

"The accelerator is an important regional scientific project that will help forge regional scientific ties," committee head Manuel Trajtenberg said. "The project has won widespread support from the Israeli scientific community, which believes that the accelerator's location and objectives will facilitate important research for Israeli academics."

The SESAME initiative emerged after the 1993 Oslo Accords; Israel's current representative to the project, Eliezer Rabinovici, was among its founders. "With the new atmosphere in the Middle East following the Oslo Accords, serious attempts were made to use scientists as bridges to peace," Rabinovici said.

The initiative has seen a number of incarnations. The wave of suicide bombings in Israel in the 1990s forced the conference to move to Europe, though planning for the Jordanian reactor continued unimpeded.

Rabinovici recalled that the project's seeds were first sown three weeks after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as scientists from Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank and Morocco met in a Bedouin tent in the Sinai Peninsula.

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