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Opinion: The Early History of Iran’s Nuclear Programme

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. He is a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.This is the third of a series of 10 articles in which Jahanpour looks at various aspects and implications of the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme reached in July 2015 between Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany, plus the European Union.

OXFORD, Sep 9 2015 (IPS) - Iran has had a nuclear programme since 1959 when the United States gave a small reactor to Tehran University as part of the “Atoms for Peace” programme during Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign.  When the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was introduced in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, Iran was one of the first signatories of that Treaty.

Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour

The Shah had made extensive plans for using nuclear energy in order to free Iran’s oil deposits for export and also in order for use in petrochemical industries to receive more revenue. The Shah had planned to build 22 nuclear reactors to generate 23 million megawatts of electric power.  By 1977, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) had more than 1,500 highly paid employees, with a budget of 1.3 billion dollars, making it the second biggest public economic institution in the country.

In 1975, the Gerald Ford administration in the United States expressed support for the Shah’s plan to develop a full-fledged nuclear power programme, including the construction of 23 nuclear power reactors.

President Gerald Ford has been reported as having “signed a directive in 1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The deal was for a complete ‘nuclear fuel cycle’.”

“Iran has had a nuclear programme since 1959 when the United States gave a small reactor to Tehran University as part of the “Atoms for Peace” programme during Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign”

The Shah donated 20 million dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to train Iranian nuclear experts, many of whom are still working for Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organisation, including the current head of the organisation and one of the chief negotiators, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi.  In 1975, Iran also paid 1.18 billion dollars to buy 10 percent of Eurodif, a French company that produces enriched uranium. In return, Iran was supposed to receive enriched uranium for its reactors, a pledge that the French government reneged on after the Iranian revolution.

In 1975, Germany’s Kraftwerk Union AG started the construction of two reactors in Bushehr at an estimated cost of 3-6 billion dollars. Kraftwerk Union stopped work on the Bushehr reactors after the start of the Iranian revolution, with one reactor 50 percent complete, and the other 85 percent complete. The United States also cut off the supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for the Tehran nuclear reactor.

After the revolution, the Islamic Republic initially stopped all work on the nuclear programme. However, in 1981, Iranian officials concluded that after having spent billions of dollars on their programme it would be foolish to dismantle it. So, they turned to the companies that had
signed agreements with Iran to complete their work. Nevertheless, as the result of political pressure by the U.S. government, all of them declined. Iran also turned to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for help to no avail.

In the late 1980s, a consortium of companies from Argentina, Germany and Spain submitted a proposal to Iran to complete the Bushehr-1 reactor, but pressure by the United States stopped the deal. In 1990, U.S. pressure also stopped Spain’s National Institute of Industry and Nuclear Equipment from completing the Bushehr project.  Later on, Iran set up a bilateral cooperation on fuel cycle-related issues with China but, under pressure from the West, China also discontinued its assistance.

Therefore, it was no secret to the West that Iran was trying to revive its nuclear programme.

Having failed to achieve results through formal and open channels, Iranian officials turned to clandestine sources, and using their own domestic capabilities.  A major mistake was to receive assistance from A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.  In 1992, Iran invited IAEA inspectors to visit all the sites and facilities they asked. Director General Hans Blix reported that all activities observed were consistent with the peaceful use of atomic energy.

On Feb. 9, 2003, Iran’s programme and efforts to build sophisticated facilities at Natanz were revealed allegedly by Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political wing of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MKO), for years regarded as a terrorist organisation by the West. It has been strongly suggested that MKO had received its information from Israeli intelligence sources.

President Mohammad Khatami announced the existence of the Natanz (and other) facilities on Iranian television and invited the IAEA to visit them. Then, in late February 2003, Dr. Mohammad El-Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited Iran.  In November 2003, the IAEA reported that Iran had systematically failed to meet its obligations under its NPT safeguards agreement to report its activities to the IAEA, although it also reported no evidence of links to a nuclear weapons programme.

It should be noted that at that time Iran was only bound by the provisions of the NPT, which required the country to inform the IAEA of its nuclear activities only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material into the facility.  So, according to Iranian officials, building the Natanz facility and not declaring it was not illegal, but the West regarded it as an act of concealment and violation of the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which Iran had not signed. In any event, the scale of Iran’s nuclear activities surprised the West, and it was taken for granted that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

In May 2003, in a bold move, the Khatami government in Iran sent a proposal to the U.S. government through Swiss diplomatic channels for a “Grand Bargain”, offering full transparency, as well as withdrawal of support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and resumption of diplomatic relations, but the offer went unanswered.

In October 2003, the United Kingdom, France and Germany undertook a diplomatic initiative to resolve the problem. The foreign ministers of the three countries and Iran issued a statement known as the Tehran Declaration, according to which Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA and to implement the Additional Protocol as a voluntary confidence-building measure. Iran even suspended enrichment for two years during the course of the negotiations.  On Mar. 23, 2005, Iran submitted to the EU Troika” a plan of “objective guarantees” with the following elements:

(1) Spent reactor fuels would not be reprocessed by Iran.

(2) Iran would forego plutonium production through a heavy water reactor.

(3) Only low-enriched uranium would be produced.

(4) A limit would be imposed on the enrichment level.

(5) A limit would be imposed on the amount of enrichment, restricting it to what was needed for Iran’s reactors.

(6) All the low-enriched uranium would be converted immediately to fuel rods for use in reactors (fuel rods cannot be further enriched).

(7) The number of centrifuges in Natanz would be limited, at least at the beginning.

(8) The IAEA would have permanent on-site presence at all the facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment.

In early August 2005, the EU Troika” submitted the “Framework for a Long-Term Agreement” to Iran, recognising Iran’s right to develop infrastructure for peaceful use of nuclear energy, and promised collaboration with Iran. However, as the result of extreme U.S. pressure, the EU Troika was unable to respond to Iran’s call for nuclear collaboration, and subsequently Iran withdrew its offer and resumed enrichment.

The rebuff by the West to President Khatami’s outstretched hand resulted in the weakening of the Reformist Movement and the election of hardline candidate Mahmud Ahmadinezhad as the next president of Iran in June 2005. (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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