Thanks to the recent announcements about Iran’s nuclear program by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the President of the United States, Donald Trump, the world is now living on the brink of another Middle East conflict. What is rarely discussed is the origin of Iran’s nuclear program and how the United States was involved. As you will see in this posting, Iran’s nuclear research program didn’t begin in a vacuum; the United States and its former key ally in the region, Iran, were closely linked when it came to Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities.
As you may or may not be aware, on December 8, 1953, the United States under then President Eisenhower established the U.S. Atoms for Peace Program, a civil nuclear program that was designed to provide technological and educational resources for states desiring civil nuclear programs as you can hear in this speech:
Let’s take a brief moment to look at a bit of history which is key to understanding Iran and its relationship to the United States. In 1953, a United States-led coup d’etat ousted the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, whose “sin” was his move to nationalize the country’s oil industry. At America’s behest, he was replaced by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, better known to the West as the Shah of Iran. The Shah, a staunch ally of the United States, was not particularly beloved by his people because of his repeated brutal subjugation of his countrymen, a sentiment that eventually led to his sudden departure in 1979.
Now, let’s go back to the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. As part of the aforementioned agreement, the United States provided Iran with a fully functioning nuclear reactor in 1967. The five megawatt thermal light water Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) is housed at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center and was designed to operate on uranium that is enriched to 93 percent (weapons-grade or highly enriched uranium), 5.58 kilograms of which was also supplied by the United States.
Here is an aerial photograph of the Tehran Research Reactor:
The reactor is capable of producing up to 600 grams of plutonium annually. As was agreed, between 1967 and 1979, the United States continued to supply Iran with highly enriched uranium for use in the TRR.
In 1974, the Shah of Iran announced that plans to construct 20 nuclear power reactors over the next two decades with the purpose of providing 23,000 MWe of nuclear capacity to generate electricity for Iran so that it could export its massive oil and natural gas resources. The Shah established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran which concluded an agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975; under this agreement, MIT provided a specialized Master’s program to provide Iranians with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy.
After Iran’s revolution in 1979, the United States and Europe cut off the supply of replacement nuclear fuel, forcing Iran to look elsewhere for fuel. In 1987, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) paid Argentina’s Applied Research Institute $5.5 million to convert the reactor to use uranium that was enriched to slightly less than 20 percent (low enriched uranium or LEU) rather than the 93 percent enriched uranium (highly enriched uranium or HEU) that it was designed to use. At 19.75 percent, the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor is at a level that is just below the lower limit for highly enriched uranium; since 1993, the reactor has been operating successfully using the 115.8 kilograms of safeguarded LEU supplied by Argentina with the tacit approval of the United States and the outright approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which was given on September 26, 1988. Of the original fuel supplied by the United States, approximately 7 kilograms of HEU remains stored at the reactor site. It is believed that Iran used this reactor to conduct its early efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has used the Tehran Research Reactor to irradiate uranium oxide, separate plutonium and produce small amounts of polonium-210 in the early 1990s. Polonium 201 is often used in a beryllium-polonium initiator that starts the chain reaction in a nuclear weapon. The production of these radioactive products was completed without notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran claims that the polonium was produced as part of a study into the production of neutron sources for use in radioisotope thermoelectric generator and that it was not produced as part of its nuclear weapons program.
In 2009, it was projected that the Iranians would run out of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, largely because of the failure of its deal with Russia and France. Iran declared that it had started enriching uranium up to the 20 percent level in order to manufacture fuel pellets for the TRR. In February 2012, Iran loaded the first batch of its domestically produced fuel rods into the Tehran Research Reactor. Interestingly, in late 2011, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Tehran would stop producing LEU if it were guaranteed a source of uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor since the reactor was used to supply medical isotopes for treating the estimated 850,000 cancer patients in Iran. In addition, as you can see from this table, Iran has significant plans in place to expand its inventory of nuclear power reactors, a move that would entail acquiring a significant quantity of nuclear fuel:
Let’s close with this quote from Peter Jenkins, former United Kingdom Permanent Representative for the International Atomic Energy Administration between 2001 and 2006:
“Since 1992, both leading Israeli parties have strived to convince Washington of Israel’s value to the US as an ally in a post-Cold War Middle East. For these Israelis, Iran’s nuclear programme has been manna from heaven—just what’s needed to persuade Americans that Iran is an evil state bent on destroying Israel, and that Iran’s programme, if left unchecked, will precipitate nuclear proliferation in an unstable region.
US neoconservatives, in thrall to dreams of reshaping the Middle East, have provided a ready echo chamber for these (highly questionable) propositions. These constituencies, Israeli and American, have no interest in the normalisation of the Iranian nuclear case through an NPT deal.”
It is interesting to look back in history to see what a tangled diplomatic web has been woven when it comes to Iran and its nuclear program, a web that was largely woven by the United States.
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