Vol. 33 No. 23 · 1 December 2011

Doing It by Ourselves

David Patrikarakos writes about Iran’s nuclear programme

3182 words

On 12 November a blast ripped through the Alghadir missile base, 25 miles south-west of Tehran. Among the 17 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard killed was Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam, the architect of the country’s missile programme. Tehran said the explosion was an accident, but it came just days after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had tested the fitting of a nuclear warhead onto its most advanced ballistic missile, the Shahab-3. Three Iranian scientists have been assassinated in the past two years, reputedly by Mossad, and there was suspicion that the blast was the latest strike in a covert war against Iran’s nuclear programme. Western intelligence sources say more assassinations are likely to follow.

Hardliners in Iran have learned an important lesson from recent history. They have just seen Gaddafi overthrown after giving up his nuclear programme in 2003, the same year that Iraq, which never had a nuclear weapons programme, was invaded. And they remember that in 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan on the grounds that it harboured and funded the Taliban, while making Pakistan, which also harboured and funded the Taliban, but had nuclear weapons, a major ally in the war on terror. The message is simple: nuclear weapons mean security.

The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington has been seen as a response to attacks on the country’s nuclear programme and its personnel. But Western understanding of that programme has mostly been simplistic and, at worst, hysterical and ill-informed. It is often assumed to be solely a military project, as if desire for a bomb were the only possible explanation for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power. But the programme has a long and complicated history, which predates the Islamic Republic.

Nuclear power first came to Iran in the 1950s under the US Atoms for Peace initiative, the basis for the international non-proliferation regime that exists today. It was regulated by an international agency (what became the IAEA) and eventually enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The NPT held that the countries which already had nuclear weapons – the US, USSR, China, France and Britain – could keep them: they were the ‘nuclear club’ and no one else could join. In return they would supply peaceful atomic technology (as they were already doing under the Atoms for Peace programme), and would themselves move towards disarmament. It was clear that any country keen to gain international acceptance should not try to acquire nuclear weapons. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, craved that acceptance, and was already beholden to the US and the UK for overthrowing Mossadegh in 1953 and then helping him keep the throne. So when nuclear technology first arrived in Iran, no one doubted that it was intended for peaceful use. In 1957 Tehran and Washington signed a bilateral agreement for the lease of several kilograms of enriched uranium and the establishment of a nuclear training centre in Iran.

The shah soon began to promulgate an imperial fantasy that his country would once again dominate, and police, the Middle East – which delighted the US arms companies that reaped billions of dollars as a result. In 1967 an Atomic Research Centre with a five-megawatt research reactor was established under the auspices of Tehran University, and in 1974 the nuclear physicist Akbar Etemad founded the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI). Etemad told me that the shah was desperate to acquire nuclear power.

Officially, Iran justified its nuclear programme on economic grounds. Oil is the basis of the nation’s wealth – it is the world’s fourth largest producer – but the shah worried about it being a finite commodity. ‘Petroleum and natural gas are so intrinsically valuable,’ he said in 1961, ‘that it is scandalous to burn them as fuel.’ The intention, he announced, was to use nuclear power instead. But other things were at stake. In 1974, facing international outrage after India’s nuclear test, Indira Gandhi claimed that only acquisition of ‘higher technology’ could allow a nation to ‘overcome poverty and economic backwardness’. Nuclear programmes helped, she said, to plug the prestige deficit suffered by developing countries ashamed of their backwardness compared to a West that begrudged them the means to compete. In the aftermath of the Indian nuclear test, State Department officials noted that developing countries, many of them India’s rivals, ‘quietly welcomed the Indian demonstration that one of their number could accomplish a technical achievement formerly reserved for the major powers’.

For the shah, though, nuclear power was not the battleground between the ‘West and the rest’, but a means by which Iran could itself become Western and restore national self-respect. Britain, he noted, had ‘assumed world leadership in nuclear power production’ while ‘America’s long-range nuclear submarines roam the seven seas.’ Iran would once again be great like them. In March 1974, Iran and France struck a deal for five reactors, with two more to be built under licence from the US firm Westinghouse. Later that year Etemad signed a contract with the West German firm KWU for two water reactors, to be built at Bushehr to supply electricity to the city of Shiraz. In 1975 Iran acquired a 10 per cent stake in Eurodif, a uranium-enrichment venture involving France, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

The shah always stressed the ‘entirely peaceful’ nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, and that remains the official line. Iran signed the NPT on the first day possible, 1 July 1968, and ratified it early in 1970; in 1974 it signed the NPT additional safeguards agreement. Such was the royal desire for Western approval that at the first NPT review conference in 1975, Iran pointedly refused to join the other non-nuclear nations in complaining about the nuclear powers’ perceived failure to disarm under Article VI of the treaty.

The shah claimed that Iran’s strength in conventional weapons meant it had no need for a bomb. ‘I want to be able to take care of anything by non-nuclear means,’ he said in 1975. By the late 1970s, Iran was the dominant military power in the Gulf. If the country tried to get nuclear weapons it might, he thought, bring about an arms race that would result in the arrival of other nuclear powers and neuter this advantage. When Etemad raised the issue with the shah he was told Iran’s conventional strength was sufficient. The shah told him that if things changed – if his regional rivals started weapons programmes – he would think again, but had he wanted the bomb, a weapons programme would have been impossible without the complicity of foreign contractors to build the infrastructure, and they had no reason to help.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the new government put a halt to the nuclear programme: it was seen as a symptom of royal excess. Fereydun Sahabi was appointed head of the AEOI and immediately complained about the cost of the Bushehr operation – at $7 billion, almost double its original estimate. The Ayatollah Khomeini was determined that Iran would from now on be self-reliant and Sahabi announced that ‘no foreign manpower’ would henceforth be used on the programme. Apart from Bushehr, all nuclear projects would be cancelled. But defiant self-sufficiency only gets you so far. Power shortages meant that energy soon became a priority and in 1980, Reza Amrollahi replaced Sahabi and restarted the nuclear programme. Eighteen months later, KWU agreed to complete at least one of the reactors at Bushehr. The government now claimed that it needed KWU’s help to develop ‘native expertise’.

But there were difficulties. After a group of Islamist students had kidnapped 52 Americans at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 (with Khomeini’s tacit approval), President Carter imposed economic and military sanctions, and then there was the war with Iraq, which began in September 1980. KWU was reluctant to start work on Bushehr while the conflict continued. The US was putting pressure on the IAEA not to get involved with Iran’s nuclear programme, and so Tehran turned to ‘suspect’ countries like Pakistan for assistance, further isolating it from the West. The international community’s silence about Iraq’s invasion and its subsequent use of chemical weapons, as well as the tacit US and near universal Arab support of Iraq during the war, all seemed to confirm that Iran could trust no one.

In October 1988, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the chairman of the Iranian parliament, addressed a gathering of emigré scientists and urged them to return home: ‘If you do not serve Iran, whom will you serve?’ Working on the nuclear programme was now a patriotic duty: it was no longer something a state had to have to become Western and modern, but something a modernising state needed to be non-Western and defiant. Iran’s nuclear programme, like its army, symbolised the country’s refusal to be beaten.

The Islamic Republic publicly claimed that it had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, and even urged disarmament. There were good ideological reasons to take this position: these weapons, after all, were synonymous with the colonial oppressor. But Iran certainly had reason to want a bomb: it was extremely unpopular with one of the world’s two superpowers and fighting a war with Iraq, which had been working towards its own nuclear capability until the 1981 Israeli attack on its reactor at Osirak. Internationally, the revolutionary government firmly allied itself with the developing world and rejected the shah’s compliance with nuclear treaties. In 1980, for example, it had refused to sign the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, claiming that it offered disproportionate protection to states with nuclear weapons at the expense of everyone else.

It is likely that Iran launched a covert weapons programme around this time. In the late 1980s it acquired centrifuge specifications, documents and manufacturing instructions from the A.Q. Khan network (Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, sold information to several countries). This provided the basis for its enrichment programme, but weapons production remained unrealistic. The Bushehr reactors, not suitable in any case for the production of weapons-grade plutonium, were still unfinished, and war had almost bankrupted the country. But in October 1988, soon after the end of the war with Iraq, Rafsanjani, by then commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, declared:

With regard to chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons training, it was made very clear during the war that these weapons are very decisive. It was also made clear that the moral teachings of the world are not very effective when war reaches a serious stage and the world does not respect its own resolutions and closes its eyes to the violations and all the aggressions which are committed in the battlefield. We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons.

The reason for the acquisition of WMDs is articulated here in terms of pressing security concerns, but is at the same time bolstered by and subsumed into Iran’s narrative of victimisation.

During the 1990s, the country’s nuclear programme began to focus on uranium enrichment and, to a lesser degree, on plutonium production – both classic ways of making a bomb. As part of Iran’s postwar reconstruction, the government resolved that by 2005, 20 per cent of the country’s energy should come from nuclear power. The plan was for more extensive co-operation with non-Western countries: Iran signed nuclear and scientific co-operation agreements with China and Russia in 1990. Efforts also continued to claw back Iranian scientists from abroad. One of those lured home was Reza Khazaneh, the former head of the Isfahan nuclear centre. In 1992 he became an adviser to Reza Amrollahi and the two worked together closely until 1997, when the incoming president, Mohammad Khatami, appointed Gholam Reza Aghazadeh to replace Amrollahi. This was widely believed to be a political appointment: Aghazadeh, a former minister for oil, had no nuclear background but, unlike Amrollahi, wasn’t afraid of antagonising the international community.

Plans for a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor at Arak had been lying around for years because Amrollahi didn’t think Iran had any need for such a reactor, the type best suited for producing the plutonium used in nuclear weapons. But Aghazadeh immediately ordered work to start at Arak and, more significant, travelled to France with Khazaneh to visit nuclear power companies, like Eurodif, which specialised in uranium enrichment. When they returned home, Aghazadeh told Khazaneh that he wanted the AEOI to start enriching uranium to make its own nuclear fuel. This made no sense to Khazaneh: the process is complex, and takes even the world’s top companies years to develop. Broke after the war with Iraq, Iran lacked the funds and the know-how. The best way to produce nuclear fuel, Khazaneh argued, would be to buy a licence from a company in the US, Britain, France or Germany, which would produce the fuel under that licence. ‘No,’ Aghazadeh replied: ‘We are going to do this by ourselves.’ Out of tune with the new orthodoxy, Khazaneh was transferred to the section of the AEOI responsible for nuclear safety. The programme had changed irrevocably: more and more resources were diverted from nuclear electricity projects towards fuel production.

The current diplomatic impasse began on 14 August 2002, when an Iranian opposition group, the MKO, revealed details of the nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak in western Iran. The West’s immediate concern was the uranium enrichment programme – the easiest path to a bomb – at Natanz. The international coalition (consisting of the EU3 – Britain, France, Germany – with the US in the background) insisted that Iran give up enrichment; it refused, and since 2005 has refused to negotiate on the matter. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2005, just after his election, President Ahmadinejad denounced the West’s ‘nuclear apartheid’ and insisted on Iran’s ‘inalienable right’ to enrich uranium. For the next few years, in the face of hostile rhetoric from the Bush White House, Ahmadinejad made the enrichment programme a totem of national sovereignty, an act of resistance to the ‘imperialist’ West .

Support for the nuclear programme is near universal across the Iranian political spectrum. But opinions vary as to whether the focus should be on uranium enrichment or electricity generation, and how the issue should be handled diplomatically. In 2007, Ali Larijani, then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and an advocate of increased engagement with the West, resigned after repeated disagreements with Ahmadinejad. Saeed Jalili, a close ally of the president, was chosen to replace him. The move was met with consternation by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and 183 of the 290 representatives in the Iranian parliament signed a motion affirming support for Larijani. Such matters were significant in the 2009 election campaign, during which various candidates attacked Ahmadinejad for diplomatic clumsiness; reports now emerging from Iran speak of unprecedented levels of infighting, with the president a politically isolated and diminished figure.

Iran says it needs to enrich its uranium to 20 per cent for medical purposes, and when I met Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, last year he claimed that the country needs to carry out the enrichment itself because it can’t trust promises from elsewhere: before 1979 it paid millions to the US for fuel that was never delivered. In May 2010 Iran signed a deal with Turkey, mediated by Brazil, to send a portion of its low-enriched uranium stockpile abroad in exchange for 120kg of highly enriched nuclear fuel rods for the Tehran reactor. The deal ultimately collapsed, however, and talks in January between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) and Iran broke down when Iran refused even to discuss a revamped proposal unless economic sanctions were lifted.

Soltanieh made clear to me that negotiations should resume – time, he said, is running out. Iran won’t wait for ever before it begins feeding its own 20 per cent enriched uranium into the reactor, and once that happens there will be no need for negotiations. It remains very difficult to assess the programme’s military capability. Certainly its uranium enrichment is now at an advanced stage. According to the IAEA Iran has installed 8000 centrifuges and is producing an increasing amount of low-enriched uranium at Natanz, reported as 4922 kg – enough for four bombs. It began enriching to levels of around 20 per cent last year and is building a stockpile (reported as 79.7 kg) that could enable it to create high-enriched uranium (at least 80 per cent) for a bomb. However, despite intensive IAEA inspections and surveillance by Western intelligence agencies, there is no incontrovertible evidence of a covert weapons programme. A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate stated with ‘high confidence’ that ‘in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme.’ An estimate from February this year reportedly (it’s classified) reached the same conclusion.

Weaponisation is a complex issue, not least because there is a significant difference between weaponisation (obtaining the technology needed to create a nuclear bomb) and developing a nuclear weapon, for which enrichment and the development of missile delivery systems, among other things, are necessary. In a speech on 6 June Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, said that the agency had received ‘further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme … [that] may have … continued until recently’. The IAEA passed a resolution last month expressing ‘deep and increasing concern’ about Iran’s nuclear programme, but its most recent report doesn’t actually contain any new evidence that Iran is developing a weapon. It may be hard to believe that its nuclear programme is solely for the production of civil nuclear power, but there remains little proof of weaponisation.

Reports that Iran is only a few years away from obtaining the bomb have been circulating since the 1980s. Earlier this year the outgoing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, said Iran would not be in a position to become a nuclear weapons state before 2015 at the earliest. It has sufficient centrifuges, low-enriched uranium stockpiles and technological knowledge to make a bomb, but it would first have to throw out the inspectors, which would probably result in Israeli strikes and devastating UN sanctions. It would have to leave the NPT and become a pariah. This would deeply wound a country with such a strong sense of its position in the world: Iran is not North Korea.

With the rigged elections of 2009 and the brutal crackdown that followed, the Islamic Republic might seem to have consolidated its rogue status. But Iran’s criticism of other countries’ behaviour towards it has always been couched in terms of their violation of international codes and regulations. The ‘attacks’ of the P5+1, for example, Iran claimed, contravened both ‘common norms of behaviour’ and ‘international codes of law’. While railing against the iniquity of international institutions, Iran still views the perceived breaking of that system’s rules as transgressions: at no point has it suggested that the system itself is wrong, merely that it is unfairly weighted against the developing world. The Islamic Republic does not seek to overthrow the international order but to be accorded what it believes is its proper place within it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences