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.