Iran’s Nuclear Program


With the future of the Iran Deal being debated in Washington, it’s worth taking a look at Iran’s nuclear past to remind us why the fate of this deal is so critical to U.S. non-proliferation efforts as well as relations with Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran continually maintains its nuclear program is benign and for civilian use only.  However, an overview of their nuclear history and the fact that they had successfully kept most of their initial development efforts secret does not bode well for that argument.

Global Context

A post-WWII atomic reality brought about the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help nations peacefully cope with the new atomic era. Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace speech served as a plea to the international community to move toward a positive resolution for nuclear development, particularly in reference to the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

In 1957, the U.S. and Iran were close partners.hey even signed a nuclear cooperation agreement under the aforementioned U.S. Atoms for Peace program. In 1967, the U.S. provided Iran its first research reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which is still active to this day.  Additionally, Iran was provided fuel for that reactor, enriched uranium. This naively optimistic mission included giving not just Iran, but other countries their own reactors and shares of fuel as a boon toward peaceful nuclear development for civilian technologies, and hopefully staving off the perceived need for nuclear military programs.

The 1970s was a turning point on many fronts. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was put into effect at the start of the decade, with Iran being one of the initial signatories. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi started ramping up Iran’s nuclear interests, with research programs active at TRR, and even sending Iranian students to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study nuclear physics.  

Though Iran maintains, to this day, that their nuclear interests were for the benefit of civilian use, they also made it known in the ‘70s that they wanted to develop their nuclear capacity to include building a bomb, should the need ever arise for its use.

Friends Til the Bitter End

The U.S. had good diplomatic relations with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but in the end, it began to fuel further dissent among Iranian citizens. All of that was upended beginning in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, then the ‘79-’81 Hostage Crisis, and the Iran-Iraq War lasting throughout ‘80s. The revolution was a crucial turning point in modern history of Iran, and subsequently its relationship with the rest of the world.

Iran in the Shadows

It was in 2002 that the extent of Iran’s deceit began to show, when previously undeclared nuclear facilities were exposed by a dissident group. A 2003 IAEA report  noted with concern Iran’s lack of timely breaches of its Safeguards Agreement.

In the 1980s, with Iran in the world’s “doghouse”, they had lost ties to nuclear suppliers and made clandestine efforts to seek other help in advancing their nuclear program. Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted years later that he had attempted entry into Pakistan for the purpose of developing Iran’s nuclear program, but was denied.

However, it was rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan who insidiously shared the designs for the P-1 centrifuge for the enrichment of uranium, a secret list of suppliers, and possibly designs for using uranium in a nuclear bomb. As a side note, Khan is also suspected of sharing nuclear technology with Korea and Libya. In the mid-90s, Iran acquired more components from the AQ Khan network for 500 centrifuges, and later designs for the P-2 centrifuge, the much more advanced model than its predecessor.

Though both the IAEA and the U.N. demanded starting in 2006 that Iran halt their uranium-enrichment programs, they didn’t. Iran continued to snub requests for more transparency in their nuclear and related activities as well as access to all their facilities for inspection.

A New Hope or Continued Deceit?

In 2013, the Interim Agreement signed in Geneva brought together the P5+1 nations (the U.S., France, China, Russia, the UK, plus Germany) and Iran to commence negotiations which would ultimately result in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA), or Iran Deal.  Though Iran agreed to the arrangements, which included eliminating its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, reducing the low-enriched uranium stockpile plus two-thirds of its gas centrifuges in exchange for lifting of economic sanctions, critics of the deal feel the stipulations were not strong enough. Mark Dubowitz of FDD articulates why he and other critics feel this deal falls short: despite the conditions of the agreement, it still allows Iran to essentially continue its nuclear program. Additionally, the deal is short-sighted, with a timeline of clauses staggered to end over the next two decades.

Analysts like Dubowitz are doubtful that the current structure of the Iran Deal will make lasting changes to Iran’s ethos on the nuclear front, in terms of working cooperatively with the international community. Decades of nuclear secrecy and staving off transparency with world powers can only lead us to believe that their participation in the Iran Deal is to mollify the West.


Can We Really Trust Iran to Change? What Their Human Rights Record Has to Say

Refugee Children in Immigration Detention Protest Broadmeadows

On January 10, 2018, Iran moved to scale back its death sentences for those incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Though in the works since 2016, the timing of this decision is a clear attempt to shift the international community’s focus away from Iran’s current tumultuous internal strife.

While this appears on the surface to be a solid step for Iran’s political ethos, recent protests beginning at the end of 2017 and spilling into the new calendar year underline a distinct domestic cynicism. First, we’ll take a look at Iran’s history of executions as it relates to its new policy; then we’ll delve into the ongoing protests. We’ll conclude with the global implications of Iran’s actions;  Mark Dubowitz is one expert who has written about this.


Iran’s Record(ed) Numbers

Iran’s use of Sharia law in governance has spurred endless criticism from the international community. Past conduct that warranted execution in Iran for “non-violent” crimes includes insulting the Prophet, apostasy, homosexuality, adultery, and drugs or drug-related crimes. Nearly three decades ago, Iran reportedly had the highest rate of executions in the world. Though numbers still ran high, they dipped until 2015, when it spiked to a reported 1,000, accounting for 55% of the world’s executions that year. Additionally, there are 73 known cases of juvenile offenders executed since 2005. Currently, Iran is second only to China in the number of executions per year.

The new changes exempting some drug-related crimes from the death penalty could reverse of the fate of approximately 5,000 people currently on Iran’s death row for that class of crime. According to Iran’s Parliament, those in line for execution can have their cases fully re-examined. However, the new amendment stipulates that those possessing or distributing more than 50 kg of narcotics will still face capital punishment. Previously, 5 kg of opium or 30 g of heroin was enough to warrant the death penalty.


Protests and The Price of Eggs

The reduction in qualifiers for execution is objectively good news, but tempered with the recent flare-up of protests, one must wonder if the impetus for the decision is a temporary measure to save face.

In late December of 2017, protests erupted across Iran. On the surface, the protests broke out over a 40% increase in the price of eggs. However, the bigger picture clearly shows that a stagnant and corrupt economy has enriched the mullahs while leaving the Iranian people struggling.

This most recent spark in protests began in Mashhad, known as Iran’s spiritual capital, with a population of conservatives who largely voted for Rouhani’s opponent, Ibrahim Raesi, in the last election. Because it is a 3-million-strong hub of pilgrimage and tourism, the drive to turn a dime (or rial) on those travelers is exacerbating the class divide. The effort to draw people with luxurious accommodations and entertaining places to stay contrasts with the city’s scanty infrastructure. Additionally, the rural poor and traditionally austere pilgrims have felt alienated in a city rooted in spirituality but lacking in affluence.

President Rouhani’s official reaction to the protests stated that Iranians do have a right to criticize the government, especially since the people have long experienced corrupt governments under the Islamic Republic. However, during his four-and-a-half years as president, Rouhani has failed to take any meaningful steps to strengthen Iran’s human rights. In this context, the protests mark a direct repudiation of Rouhani’s record.

However, as protests and clashes with police spread across the country, the government blocked access to Iran’s popular social media app, Telegram, and also restricted use of Instagram. Officials claimed the social media apps were being used to coordinate among protesters to spread violence. The protests as a whole have remained peaceful, while government officials and IRGC representatives issued sharp statements demonizing those protesting as enemies of the state.

Though full access has since been reinstated first to Instagram, then to Telegram, the latter was restored only after two full weeks of shuttered free speech and communication.

When Will Iran Be Held Accountable?

Mark Dubowitz, a financial and economic analyst who serves as CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan think tank, has highlighted Iran’s deplorable human rights record and the lack of accountability enforced by the U.S. and the international community. Despite protests and unrest with Iran’s own people, the global spotlight more often focuses on Iran when the topic turns to their nuclear interests.

The JCPOA has been a hotly debated topic in the United States since its finalization in 2015, particularly in light of President Trump’s reluctance to sign off on Iran’s compliance. Mark Dubowitz ( has warned that Iran’s compliance is merely a means to regain access to their financial assets. He argues that Iran’s financial gains would not got towards the betterment of its own people, but rather for more sinister reasons. Dubowitz and FDD have long been fighting for stricter sanctions against Iran for its history of stirring up  instability, and the threat it poses to America,  its allies, and the well-being of its own people.

Dubowitz has been championing the need to hold Iran accountable for its regional aggression and domestic repression. These are lessons that we should learn from to keep America and its allies safe.