Doing It by Ourselves

David Patrikarakos writes about Iran’s nuclear programme

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’.

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