25 July 2015

Why does Iran even have a nuclear program in the first place?

by Zack Beauchamp
July 21, 2015

Iran has had a nuclear program since the country restarted it in the 1980s, has been under economic sanctions for it since the 1990s, faced the threat of war over it in the 2000s, and now has come through 20 grueling months of negotiations just to keep part of the program in place.

On its face, Iran's nuclear program makes very little strategic sense. Though Iran insists the program is only for peaceful purposes, it's far beyond what's necessary to generate nuclear power. And it's never made sense as an energy investment; other types of energy are more efficient for Iran, and its grid desperately needs upgrading.

"No sound strategic energy planning would prioritize nuclear energy in a country like Iran," Iran experts Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour wrote in a Carnegie Endowment report.

This is why arms control experts believe that, as Monterey's Jeffrey Lewis put it, the program "could be used to make a bomb, and we think was originally intended to make a bomb." That said, there is an important distinction between developing nuclear weapons capability versus building an actual bomb (more on that later).

But it's not clear that even if Iran got a bomb, it'd be worth the price tag. By Vaez and Sadjadpour's estimate, Iran has lost $100 billion in foreign investment and oil sales alone because of the program.

All of this raises an important question, one that has not been asked much in this process: why? Why cling to a program that has invited so many problems, has not actually produced a warhead, and, even if it did, still probably wouldn't have been worth all of the costs?
The nuclear program's genesis

A pro-revolution Iranian woman in Tehran in 1979. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

In 1974, the Shah of Iran said something shocking. "Sooner than is believed," Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi told Le Monde, Iran will "be in possession of a nuclear bomb."

The remarks caused a PR crisis. The shah later ordered Iran's embassy in France to deny he had ever said it. But the boast illustrates just how long Iran has been thinking about a bomb — and the nationalist thinking that's long underpinned it.

Iran's nuclear program has its origins in 1959, when the US set up the country's first nuclear reactor as part of an outreach meant to keep Iran in the anti-Soviet orbit. By the 1970s, Pahlavi had upgraded to a full-blown nuclear program.

Iran's leader wanted to establish Iran as the Middle East's leading and most advanced power, and saw nuclear development as a key symbol of Iran's ascension to regional dominance.

"A nuclear program became for [the Shah] a symbol of progress and power," Abbas Milani, a historian of Iran at Stanford, writes. That's where the US got off the train: Behind the scenes, the Carter and Ford administrations fought repeatedly with the shah about his nuclear ambitions.

Then, in 1979, Iran's Islamic Revolution deposed the shah. The new leadership shuttered the shah's pet nuclear project. Iranian leaders complained about being forced to buy "nuclear junk" from the West.

That changed with the Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980 with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran. The war turned into a horrific stalemate, with many deaths on both sides. The US backed Saddam, and turned a blind eye when he repeatedly used chemical weaponsagainst the Iranians — a shocking, gruesome tactic that remains fresh in Iranian memories to this day. Saddam had also done some work on a nuclear program.

Around 1984, as the war stretched on, Iran restarted its nuclear program, constructing nuclear facilities and purchasing enrichment technology from the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who had also sold to North Korea and Libya for their rogue nuclear programs.

In 1988, a US warship off of Iran's coast shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board. Though the shootdown had been a mistake, it was taken by Iran as a deliberate act meant as a threat of greater military action.


Iran's leadership, since taking power in the 1979 revolution, had seen itself as opposed to implacably hostile Western powers. Now it seemed to them that Iran was imperiled by an enemy on its border that was willing to use weapons of mass destruction and by a West so ruthless it would murder hundreds of civilians. The country was exhausted by eight years of war, and the threats seemed only to be growing.

It is not difficult to imagine how Iran's leaders might look at all this and conclude that they needed to take major steps to protect their country. We do not know for sure if Iranian leaders developed their nuclear program specifically for this reason, but it is important to understand the country's perilous security situation in the first decade after the 1979 revolution.

There are reports that in 1984, Iran's then-President Ali Khamenei privately told senior political and security officials that nuclear weapons would "serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers" and secure "the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies."

Khamenei has never publicly acknowledged these comments, and the reports of his supposed 1984 quote have not been independently verified. Years later, he issued a fatwa publicly denouncing nuclear weapons as un-Islamic. He became supreme leader in 1989 and has been the country's functional leader ever since.

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