This column explores the origin of Iran’s nuclear program and the impetuous events that diminished the relationship between Iran and the United States.
Mounting unpredictability of nuclear threats to the United States of America and the international community are inciting global unrest. As the Islamic Republic of Iran (hereafter referred to as Iran) continues to demonstrate defiance in its nuclear advancements, the international community is struggling to sanction the efforts from the radical state. A collaborative effort is necessary to thwart Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. Although Iran insists that its nuclear program is a peaceful one, Western governments are intensely skeptical. This essay will seek to explore Iran’s nuclear program by succinctly reflecting on the origin of its nuclear program and the successive events as an effort to understand the current deliberations and determine how severe of a threat Iran really is.
Iran’s nuclear program established its roots in the 1950s—a turbulent decade for the country. Dispute over oil operations amassed when Britain expressed ardent dissatisfaction with Iran due to opposing views about who should profit and how the profits should be distributed regarding oil production. Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, believed that the country had the right to garner profits from its oil reserves and subsequently nationalized the industry . Britain adamantly opposed this resolution and claimed that Mossadegh was violating the legal rights of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. An impressive effort was made by the British government to persuade oil consuming nations to boycott Iranian oil. Consequently, Iran’s inability to sell its primary export forced the country into a dire financial crisis .
Fearful that the Soviet Union would impose a takeover of a vulnerable Iran, the United States agreed to coalesce with Britain to intervene. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mobilized the CIA to take preventative action to avoid such a takeover. This monumental strategy was the CIAs “first covert operation against a foreign government” . The measure undermined the Mossadegh regime by pressuring his dénouement and replaced him with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—a dictator largely dependent on U.S. aid. Following President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in 1957, the United States and Iran signed “a civil nuclear co-operation agreement” . Iran promptly began research and developments of nuclear facilities for energy generation with Western support. Strangely enough, the United States and Iran sustained a working relationship through the 1960s.
Cordial exchanges of nuclear and research materials were traded between the allies. As relationships strengthen, the two countries depended on each other for critical resources. The United States supplied nuclear materials including enriched uranium, plutonium, and eventually a water-moderated research reactor to bolster Iran’s research efforts . Early in 1961, the Joints Chief of Staff was confident that the United States’ relationship with Iran was close enough that it suggested to store nuclear weapons there. In 1968, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; however, as the 1960s proceeded into the 1970s, motivation began to accelerate. The Shah of Iran became feverishly ambitious about his country’s nuclear development, vowing to construct up to twenty nuclear plants throughout the country—a plan that received support and backing from the United States. Peaceful negotiations and trade continued between the countries despite the remarks in 1974 when Iran boldly stated that they were pursuing nuclear weapons and that development may come “sooner than one would think” . Trade continued between the United States and Iran. Although the quasi-threat did not have profound impact on the relationship between the countries, it was certainly a pivotal moment that should have sparked concern. Iran’s nuclear development prevailed until 1979 when the Islamic revolution ended their nuclear program.
The advancements in Iran’s nuclear program between the fall of the Mossadegh regime and the Islamic revolution were exceptional. Strong diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran served as Iran’s impetus to move forward with nuclear development. These advancements would not have materialized without cooperation and assistance from the United States. Iran sought American universities, engineers, and scientists to bolster its nuclear program. In this regard, the United States was overwhelmingly generous. Massachusetts Institute of Technology was among the universities chosen (as well as Harvard University and Columbia University) by Iranian government to specially train nuclear engineers . Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s consideration to this matter sparked debate throughout the campus as students protested the program fearful that Iran had a nuclear proliferation agenda. If political concern was heartfelt by students, it was the academic integrity of the institution and the prestige of its degrees that troubled some of its faculty. Rising concern about Iran’s nuclear objective seemed to diffuse the M.I.T. community and the nation when Professor Kent Hansen argued that it was advantageous for the institution to adopt this program as a medium to gain exposure in foreign countries . He believed that world could benefit from American education asserting that international students will return to their countries and become powerful public figures. Providing fair opportunity to these international students in the United States would reap benefits in the future when they reflect on their education.
American generosity did not culminate with special training for atom scientists in its universities. The New York Times ran several advertisements in 1976 for the Iran Nuclear Energy Company soliciting employment opportunities for nuclear engineers and specialists. According to one ad, “all positions offered attractive salaries, excellent fringe benefits and working conditions” and were available immediately for qualified persons . Ostensibly, the United States was willing to offer any resources necessary to help Iran grow its nuclear program. The motivation behind such fervent support is obscure.
United States relations with Iran slipped into rapid decay when Iran’s stability was undermined by the radical Islamic revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini headed the revolution on a conservative Muslim platform demanding extradition of the Shah of Iran. His supporters raided the United States Embassy in Tehran alleging that it was a “den of spies” . In total, the radicals seized sixty-three staff members and released them incrementally over a period of 444 days. The incident attracted widespread attention in the United States inciting outrage among American citizens. Almost immediately “Washington sever[ed] diplomatic ties and impose[d] sanctions against Iran” .
Prior to the revolution in 1979, the United States did not expressly state concern about Iran as a potential threat. Leveraging its superpower status to aid Iran was markedly significant for Iran’s nuclear program, but equally critical for the United States. High level involvement in the Iranian nuclear operations from the United States and international agencies sufficiently insured to restrain Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction. However, during this time the Shah was allegedly “purchasing billions of dollars worth of weapons, many of which can be equipped with nuclear arms…[and] spoke about expanding Iran’s sphere of influence” . Despite these allegations, the United States was in the unique role as the world’s most powerful nation and did not view Iran as a colossal threat, especially given their strong diplomatic relationship at the time.
Unfortunately, this sentiment was not perpetual. Moving forward two decades it is acutely understood that the circumstances have been dramatically reoriented. Today, Iran is believed to pose a serious threat to the United States and other nations around the world. The two decades that span the lapse between 1979 and 2003 were fraught with provocation from the Iranian regime, but the issues did not develop into substantial concern (with the exception of the Iran-Contra Scandal, and the USS Vincennes that shot down an Iranian passenger plane). The catalyst believed to have reshaped the debate with Iran was George Bush’s State and of Union address in 2002 when he declared the nuclear interests of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil” . Iran was appalled by this assertion and responded by accusing the comment as “arrogant” . Opponents contend that these remarks reset the agenda for Iran against the United States.
A report published in June of 2003, summarizing the March 2003 inspection, by the Director General Mohamed El Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency attracted concern about Iran’s nuclear energy practices. A litany of obligatory neglect and failure of “declaration of facilities where the material was stored and processed” prompted unease throughout the international community . Failure to report nuclear waste is notable because this material can be reprocessed into plutonium which is can further be converted into fissile material eligible for nuclear explosives. In the report, the Director General states:
Although the quantities of nuclear material involved have not been large, and the
material would need further processing before being suitable for use as the fissile
material component of a nuclear explosive device, the number of failures by Iran to
report the material, facilities and activities in question in a timely manner as it is
obliged to do pursuant to its Safeguards Agreement is a matter of concern. While these
failures are in the process of being rectified by Iran, the process of verifying the
correctness and completeness of the Iranian declarations is still ongoing .
The profundity of Iran’s neglect is evident. Given the empirical laws of science that state nuclear waste can be reprocessed into potentially harmful plutonium, it is a substantial motive to question intent.
When the International Atomic Energy Agency was inspecting the Iranian nuclear energy operations in March of 2003, they revealed discomforting findings. Director General El Baradei discovered that Iran was “constructing a facility to enrich uranium—a key component of advanced nuclear weapons” . Hundreds of functioning centrifuges in the “extremely advanced” plant were capable of producing enriched uranium, and parts for a thousand more were “ready to be assembled” . Iran’s behavior was antagonizing and childish especially when they purported to “activate a uranium conversion facility” which would be a direct violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which they are a signatory . Using the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as protection from allegations that they are pursuing other nuclear interests does not persuade the international community. For eighteen years Iran successfully hid an entire uranium enrichment program from the International Atomic Energy Agency, “a fact that alone could justify the imposition of sanctions by the UN Security Council” . More importantly, Iran’s ability to keep a facility of that magnitude clandestine for such an extensive period of time is frightening and thought provoking.
Iran contends that its enrichment facilities are for quantified purposes in energy generation only. Enriched uranium and plutonium are also conducive to fueling “nuclear reactors for electricity”—a widely accepted phenomenon . The contention arises when Iran refuses to grant inspectors access to their facilities. Western governments are inclined to assume the worst when these instances occur. Kayhan Barzegar believes that “time is of the essence” and that the approach to the Iran dilemma needs timely reconsideration to eradicate doubt and reluctance from the Iranians to cooperate. A viable approach to “curbing nuclear proliferation and preventing growing instability in the region” begins when the West ceases to doubt the legitimacy of Iran’s incumbent government . Doubting the regime creates animosity and stymies any efforts to move forward diplomatically.
Pressure from the international community is frustrating Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responds to these pressures with impatience and controversial remarks—inciting further contention from the outside. In September 2009 the International Atomic Energy Agency together with Britain, United States, and France disclosed a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the IAEA, expressly stated that this finding was indicative that Iran “not even for a second will stop its nuclear activities” . President Ahmadinejad also claimed during this moment that Iran had more nuclear facilities that were undisclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency. International officials make stringent efforts to locate these facilities by being acute when interviewing Iranian officials and reading documents, but Iran is tacit. If these locations are disclosed, International Atomic Energy Officials are restricted from visiting the sites without Iranian permission .
Iran’s refusal to cooperate with the European Union about its nuclear program is agitating EU leaders. The threat of new sanctions looms while the EU prepares to make advances at undermining Iran’s nuclear defiance. Some EU leaders are skeptical whether the United Nations will support the sanctions, but others like France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy believe that support from the United Nations is imminent. Regardless, the EU plans to move forward with their sanctions if the United Nations denies . Popular consensus among EU leaders and the United States is that Iran’s covert behavior is potentially perilous. They believe that Iran’s nuclear program is being used to disguise the development of nuclear weapons. This sentiment is serious and Iran’s ability to build weapons of mass destruction compromises international security.
Disdain for the United States and Israel emboldens the attention to Iran’s nuclear program. A lack of foresight through the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s when the United States supported Iran’s nuclear development was imprudent. Today, discomfort about Iran’s next move is constantly looming over the international community. Strong convictions from the Iranian regime and its growing regional influence are almost counterproductive to Iran’s perceived intentions. On one hand, Iran’s dissatisfaction with the West and other international players may persuade the country to retaliate in a destructive way. On the other hand, Iran has garnered support from neighboring countries; mostly as a result of the Iraq war. However, if Iran seeks to maintain these relations they must be compliant with International Atomic Energy Agency’s bylaws for nuclear programs. If Iran fails to comply, it risks losing this support.
This paradox illuminates an important idea. The threat is not necessarily about whether or not Iran will take destructive action (although we should not dismiss the possibility); they would face grave ramifications if they did. Moreover, the threat is underscored by Iran’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction and the uncertainty of their intentions. The confrontational nature of the regime is resented by many and this resentment restricts constructive diplomatic negotiations. If political bloodshed continues between Iran and the rest of the world, Iran may unload punitive arms out of pure frustration. As Barzegar explains, an effort to expend dissent must materialize quickly because a diplomatic relationship with Iran is possible.
 “444 Days: America Reacts .” PBS: American Experience. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/sfeature/sf_hostage.html
  Barzegar, Kayhan. “The paradox of Iran’s nuclear consensus.” World Policy Journal 26.3 (Fall 2009) 21(10). Global Issues In Context. Gale. CUNY Trial. 14 Dec. 2009 http://find.galegroup.com/gic/start.do?prodId=GIC
    Calabresi, Massimo. “Iran’s Nuclear Threat.” Time. N.p., 8 Mar. 2003. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0%2C8599%2C430649%2C00.htm
   De Luce, Dan. “The spectre of Operation Ajax: Britain and the US
crushed Iran’s first democratic government. They didn’t learn from that mistake.” The Gaurdian. N.p., 20 Aug. 2003. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/aug/20/foreignpolicy.iran
 “EU Leaders Urge Action Against Iran.” Wall Street Journal. N.p., 11 Dec. 2009. Web.15 Dec. 2009.
  Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,
by Director General. International Atomic Energy Agency. N.p., 19 June 2003.
Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
 “Iran Further Escalates the Nuclear Controversy.” Foreign Policy Association. N.p., 20 Aug. 2005. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
   Jahanpour, Farhang, Ph.D. “Chronology of Iran’s Nuclear Programme, 1957-2007.” Oxford Research Group: Building Bridges for Global Security. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2009. http://oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/oxford_research_group_chronology_irans
 “Key Events in Iran Since 1921.” PBS. N.p., 17 June 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  Lauria, Joe. “IAEA to Seek Evidence of Iranian Nuclear Sites.” Wall Street Journal. N.p., 30 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125427165940751275.html
“Perception of Iran’s Goals.” Global Issues in Context Online Collection. Detroit: Gale, Global Issues In Context. Gale. CUNY Trial. 13 Dec. 2009
    Safdari, Cyrus. “Blasts from the Past: Western Support for Iran’s Nuclear program.” Iran Affairs: Iranian Foreign Policy and International Affairs. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
 “US-Iran Relations Since 1979: Timeline.” Gaurdian.co.uk. N.p., 14 Dec. 2009.
Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
Original Appearances of Data Visuals and Media
Cover Image by Hamed Saber