Iran's Nuclear Program

Part I: Its History
October 2, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Muhammad Sahimi


Payvand Iran News

On February 9, 2003, Iran's program and efforts for building sophisticated facilities at Natanz and and several other cities that would eventually produce enriched uranium were revealed. President Mohammad Khatami announced the existence of the Natanz (and other) facilities on Iran's television and invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit them. Then, in late February, Dr. Mohammad El Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited Iran. Since then, the IAEA's experts and inspectors have visited Iran several more times. A preliminary report was published in July, with a follow up report on August 26. On September 12, 2003, the IAEA gave Iran an ultimatum to reveal all the details of its nuclear activities by October 31, 2003.

Iran's nuclear program and activities, though discussed for many years, have come into sharp focus since the February announcement. The information and data that have been obtained by the IAEA, after visiting the Natanz facility and a few other locations, have surprised the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Japan. Similar to the Clinton administration, the Bush administration has been suspicious of Iran's nuclear program, arguing that, having vast oil and natural gas reserves, Iran hardly needs nuclear energy. Hence, the Bush administration argues that the primary purpose of Iran's nuclear program is developing nuclear weapons. The EU, which is negotiating with Iran extensive economic and cultural agreements; Russia, which is completing construction of nuclear reactors in Bushehr and hoping to build many more reactors in Iran, and Japan, which is hoping to sign a lucrative oil agreement with Iran for developing Iran's huge Azaadegaan oil field (the largest oil field in the Middle East), have all pressed Iran hard, demanding that it reveal all the secret details of its nuclear program and facilities.

Note that, according to the original IAEA safeguard agreements, Iran did not have to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility. These agreements stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, does Iran have to declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of the undeclared Natanz facility was NOT illegal. In addition, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is intended for peaceful purposes. Moreover, the NPT allows the member states to withdraw from the agreement, subject to giving a 90 days notice to the IAEA, if they believe that abiding by the terms of the NPT threatens their national security (in the language of the NPT, if it is in their "Supreme Interest").

Aside from the political confrontation that the revelations about Iran's nuclear program have created between Iran on one hand, and the US and her allies on the other hand, the questions that I believe we Iranians must ask and debate, are: Does Iran need nuclear energy, and is acquiring it in its national interests? Before starting to debate these all-important questions, however, we must first decouple Iran's need for nuclear energy from its alleged or real intentions for producing nuclear weapons.

This article represents the first of a three-part series in which these two important questions are discussed, and Iran's nuclear program is described and analyzed in detail. In the present article, the history of Iran's program for nuclear research and development is reviewed. The significance of this review is twofold. (1) History shows that the US and her allies were in fact the driving force behind the birth of Iran's nuclear program in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (2) It is also particularly important to recognize that since the late 1980s, when Iran restarted its nuclear program, the US and her allies have been given every opportunity to participate in the development and construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, which would have provided them with significant control on the reactors and their products, but that they have always refused to do so.

Although various portions of Part I (the present article) have been published before, it may be useful to put all the pieces together in order to present a cohesive and brief review of the history of Iran's nuclear program, and to make it available through an easily-accesible web site. In this author's opinion, this may be particularly useful for the young generation of Iranians who may be interested in this history, and the important role that the US played in the birth of Iran's nuclear program.

Part II will discuss why Iran must stop relying almost exclusively on oil and gas as her sole sources of energy, and start developing alternative sources, the most advanced of which are nuclear reactors. There are compelling economical, social, and environmental reasons for seeking alternative sources of energy for Iran, which will be described in detail in Part II.

Part III will describe, in simple terms, how violations of the NPT are detected, and what the major issues are at the center of the dispute between Iran and the IAEA. The dispute - some call it a crisis - is in fact mostly between Iran on one hand, and the US and some of her allies on the other hand, with the IAEA being used as a tool in a political battle.

Before embarking on this task, we must recognize that the development of adequate energy resources is a highly important part of the national interests of every nation which, by their very definition, transcend the political system that governs a nation. Both Democratic and Republican administrations in the US, and their allies, such as Britain, have waged wars, invaded and occupied oil-producing countries, and engineered coups to overthrow the legal, often democratically-elected, governments of oil-producing countries in order to control the world's oil reserves. They have always justified their deed solely based on protecting their national interests and national security. We only need to recall what happened in Iran in 1953, after Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iran's oil industry, and the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain, to understand this. The same principles are also applicable to Iran, namely, that she has a fundamental right for securing adequate energy resources - the engine for her development and advancement.

Iran's foray into nuclear research and development began in the mid 1960s under the auspices of the US within the framework of bilateral agreements between the two countries. The first significant nuclear facility built by the Shah was the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), founded in 1967, housed at Tehran University, and run by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). This Center has always been one of Iran's primary open nuclear research facilities. It has a safeguarded 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor that was supplied by the US in 1967. The reactor can produce up to 600 grams of plutonium per year in its spent fuel.

Iran signed the NPT on July 1, 1968. After the Treaty was ratified by the Majles, it went into effect on March 5, 1970. In the language of Article IV of the Treaty, the NPT recognized Iran's "inalienable right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful proposes without discrimination, and acquire equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information." The events of the early 1970s were, however, instrumental in shaping and accelerating the development of Iran's nuclear program. The 1973 war between the Arab countries and Israel, and the subsequent huge increase in the price of oil, provided the Shah's government with considerable resources for Iran's development. At that time, a study by the influential Stanford Research Institute concluded that Iran would need, by the year 1990, an electrical capacity of about 20,000-megawatt.

According to declassified confidential US Government documents posted on the Digital National Security Archive (see the article, "The US-Iran Nuclear Dispute: Dr Mohamed El Baradei's Mission Possible to Iran," by Drs. A. Etemad and N. Meshkati, published on July 13, 2003, in the Iran News), in the mid-1970s, the US encouraged Iran to expand her non-oil energy base, suggested to the Shah that Iran needed not one but SEVERAL nuclear reactors to acquire the electrical capacity that the Stanford Research Institute had proposed, and expressed interest in the US companies participating in Iran's nuclear energy projects. Building these reactors, and selling the weapons that the Shah was procuring from the US in the 1970s, were, of course, a good way for the US to recover the cost of the oil that she was buying from Iran.

Since the Shah never read or heard an American proposal that he did not like, he started an ambitious program for building many (presumably as many as TWENTY THREE) nuclear reactors. Hence, his government awarded a contract to Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) of (West) Germany to construct two Siemens 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors at Bushehr. The work for doing so began in 1974. In 1975, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed a contract with the AEOI for providing training for the first cadre of Iranian nuclear engineers, and the Iranian-Indian nuclear cooperation treaty was also signed (India is now a nuclear power). In addition, the Nuclear Technology Center at Esfahan (Isfahan) was founded in the mid-1970s with the French assistance in order to provide training for the personnel that would be working with the Bushehr reactors. The Esfahan Center currently operates four small nuclear research reactors, all supplied by China.

According to the same declassified document mentioned above, in an address to the symposium, "The US and Iran, An Increasing Partnership," held in October 1977, Mr. Sydney Sober, a representative of the US State Department, declared that the Shah's government was going to purchase EIGHT nuclear reactors from the US for generating electricity. On July 10, 1978, only seven months before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the final draft of the US-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed. The agreement was supposed to facilitate cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and to govern the export and transfer of equipment and material to Iran's nuclear energy program. Iran was also to receive American technology and help in searching for uranium deposits.

The Shah's government had also envisioned building two nuclear reactors and a power plant in Darkhovin, on the Karoon River, south of the city of Ahvaz. Iran signed, in 1974, a contract with the French company Framatome to build two 950 megawatt pressurized reactors at that site. Framatome did survey the area and began site preparation. However, construction had not yet started when the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan cancelled the contract after the Islamic revolution in 1979. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with China for building the reactors in Darkhovin, but the terms of the agreement have not yet been carried out by China. Given the proximity of the site to the border with Iraq, it is probably not prudent to proceed with that project at that particular site.

The Shah's government also obtained uranium materials from South Africa in the 1970s. According to Dr. Akbar Etemad, who was the founder and first President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1974 to 1978, the TNRC carried out experiments in which plutonium was extracted from spent fuel using chemical agents (see, A. Etemad, "Iran," in, "European Non-Proliferation Policy," edited by H. Mueller, Oxford University Press, 1987, page 9). Note that the only use for plutonium is in a nuclear bomb. It is also believed that the Shah assembled at the TNRC a nuclear weapon design team. Asadollah Alam, the long-time Imperial Court Minister and the Shah's close confidant, wrote in his memoirs that the Shah had envisioned Iran having nuclear weapons.

In February 1979, when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah's government, the Bushehr-1 (that is, reactor 1) was 90% complete and 60% of its equipment had been installed, while Bushehr-2 was 50% complete. Had the 1979 Revolution not happened, the Kraftwerk Union would have continued its work in all likelihood with the cooperation of the US corporation Bechtel Power, which was its joint-venture partner in many power plant projects around the world. The government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan then decided that Iran did not need nuclear energy, and therefore the work at Bushehr was halted after the victory of the Revolution in February 1979. The German firm had left Iran earlier, anyway.

During its war with Iran, Iraq bombed the Bushehr site six times (in March 1984, February 1985, March 1985, July 1986, and twice in November 1987), which destroyed the entire core area of both reactors. According to officials of Technischer Ueberwachungsverein, Germany's National Reactor Inspectorate, before the bombings, Bushehr-1 could have been completed in about three years. Note, however, that, at the time of the bombings, none of the main equipments had been installed, and in fact two steam generators (that use the heat from the reactors to produce steam to be used in power generators) were stored in Italy, while the pressure vessel for Bushehr-1 was stored in Germany.

The Revolution and its aftermath, and the eight-year war with Iraq which resulted in colossal damage to Iran's infrastructure, reduced temporarily Iran's thirst for electricity. After the war with Iraq ended, however, Iran began to rethink her position regarding nuclear energy and technology, although it would not be unreasonable to believe that Iraq's savage bombing of Iran's main population and industrial centers, and the missile attacks that it carried out against Tehran during 1986-1987, also motivated Iran's leaders to think about nuclear technology. The first reconstruction and development plan proposed and carried out by President Hashemi Rafsanjani's government, coupled with Iran's chronic shortage of electricity that went back to the early 1970s, and the rapid growth of her population, were three major reasons for Iran to restart her nuclear program for obtaining electricity.

Rafsanjani's government first approached Kraftwerk Union to complete the Bushehr project. However, under the US pressure, Kraftwerk Union refused. Iran then asked Germany to allow Kraftwerk to ship the reactor components and technical documentation that it had paid for, citing a 1982 International Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling under which Siemens was obligated to deliver all plant materials and components stored outside Iran, but the German government still refused to do so. In response, Iran filed a lawsuit in August 1996 with the ICC, asking for $5.4 billion in compensation for Germany's failure to comply with the 1982 ruling. The issue is still unsettled.

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 huge pressure by the US stopped the deal. The US pressure also stopped in 1990 Spain's National Institute of Industry and Nuclear Equipment to complete the Bushehr project. Iran also tried, unsuccessfully, to procure components for the Bushehr reactors, but her attempts were blunted by the US. For example, in 1993, Iran tried to acquire eight steam condensers, built by the Italian firm Ansaldo under the Kraftwerk Union contract, but they were seized by the Italian government. The Czech firm Skoda Plzen also discussed supplying reactor components to Iran, but, under the US pressure, negotiations were cancelled in 1994. Iran was also not successful in her attempt to buy nuclear power reactor components from an unfinished reactor of Polland.

After years of searching in the West for a supplier to complete her first nuclear power plant, Iran turned to the Soviet Union and then Russia. She signed, in March 1990, her first protocol on the Bushehr project with the Soviet Union. The agreement called on Moscow to complete the Bushehr project and build additional two reactors in Iran, but financial problems delayed the deal.

China, in 1991, provided Iran with uranium hexafluoride (a uranium compound, which is gaseous state, and used for enriching uranium; see Part III) which is, however, under the IAEA safeguard. In addition, Iran recently acknowledged that she also received (again in 1991) from China 1,000 kg of natural uranium hexafluoride, 400 kg of uranium tetra fluoride, and 400 kg of uranium dioxide, without reporting them to the IAEA. Although the amount of the (until-recently undeclared) uranium compounds is small, what has been done with them is more indicative of the real intentions behind obtaining the materials. In 1993, the AEOI and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy signed an agreement for the construction of two Russian reactors at Bushehr, but the contract was never carried out as Iran was facing major financial problems.

Finally, Iran signed, in January 1995, a contract with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to finish the reactors at Bushehr. These reactors will be under the IAEA safeguards, and will be capable of producing up to 180 kg/year of plutonium in their spent fuel. The agreement called for Russia to complete the first reactor at Bushehr within four years, although it is still unfinished; to provide a 30-50 megawatt thermal light-water research reactor, 2,000 tons of natural uranium, and training for about 15 Iranian nuclear scientists per year. Iran and Russia also agreed to discuss the construction of a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility in Iran. However, in May 1995, the US announced that it had convinced Russia to cancel the centrifuge agreement, although Russia later denied that the agreement with Iran ever existed! The light-water research reactor deal has also been cancelled.

After the 1995 agreement was signed by Iran and Russia, the Clinton administration tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Russia to cancel the agreement, but its entreaties were rebuffed by Russia which saw the Bushehr project as an opening for her ailing nuclear industry to get itself into the international market. Having failed in its attempts, the Clinton administration then began charging that the plutonium that the reactors would produce would be used by Iran for making nuclear weapons. However, this issue is also being addressed by Iran and Russia, since they are negotiating an agreement by which the nuclear wastes from the Bushehr reactors would be returned to Russia which has a large facility for storing the wastes in southern Siberia (although Russian environmental laws appear to forbid storing nuclear wastes of another country in Russia), but no agreement has been reached yet. It was reported recently that Iran has demanded payments for returning the spent fuel to Russia, contending that she pays to buy the fuel from Russia in the first place, and therefore she should also be paid for the spent fuel. If true, this would be an absurd demand, because if Russia is to pay for Iran's nuclear wastes, she should also be paid for keeping Iran's nuclear wastes! The issue of who should pay whom appears to be the only obstacle to reaching an agreement between Iran and Russia concerning the nuclear wastes.

After it appeared that the plutonium issue would be addressed by Russia, the US, under huge pressure by Israel, began claiming that, while the Bushehr reactors cannot be directly used for making nuclear weapons, they will train a generation of Iranian scientists and engineers for operating the reactor, which in turn will prepare Iran for making nuclear weapons. Is there any merit to this charge? Having a nuclear reactor is NOT necessary for obtaining the necessary know-how for developing a nuclear bomb (although it certainly helps). The best example is provided by Iraq. Israel bombed and destroyed Iraq's only nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, before it started operating, yet when its nuclear weapon program was discovered after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was only months away from making a nuclear bomb!

Most experts believe that the completion of the Bushehr project by Russia is a highly complex task: As mentioned earlier, the Kraftwerk Union has not provided any technical documents to either Iran or Russia. Since Russia plans to install a reactor, her engineers must modify what Kraftwerk Union had left behind to accommodate the Russian reactor and its support system, which differ in many significant ways from the German reactor. For example, the structure of the steam generators in the Russian reactors is significantly different from the original German reactors. The reactor is supposed to start operating in early 2004.

In addition to the what has been described so far, Iran does have a few other nuclear facilities. One is the Bonaab Atomic Energy Research Center (which is south of city of Tabriz), which is a research center for applications of nuclear technology in agriculture. In addition, Center for Agricultural Research and Nuclear Medicine at Karaj (near Tehran) was inaugurated on in May 1991, and is run by the AEOI. None of these is, however, considered to be for military applications.

This concludes the review of the history of Iran's nuclear program. The review reveals three important facts:

(1) Nuclear research, facilities, and reactors, and even the vision for Iran having nuclear weapons, were all conceived and initiated by the Shah and his government, with the direct assistance and encouragement by the US and her allies. This is very much similar to what happened in Israel, which developed her arsenal of nuclear weapons with the direct help of the US and France. They were not conceived or initiated after the Revolution. In fact, for the first few years after the Revolution, Iran rejected nuclear reactors!

(2) It is clear that the US and her allies have had many opportunities to complete the Bushehr project, or to participate in the construction of other nuclear reactors, and, hence, to have significant control on the reactors, but they have always refused to take part.

(3) In addition, the US and her allies could have participated in the Bushehr project by helping Iran improve the safety of the reactors there and, hence, have influence on their operations. As pointed out by Drs. Etemad and Meshkati (see their article cited earlier), there is good precedence for this: The Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, the construction of which began during the Soviet Union, when the former communist government was in power in Czechoslovakia, but was halted in 1992. In 1994, with a $317 million loan guarantee from the United States Export-Import Bank, an American company, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, participated in completing the Temelin's reactors.

Hence, there is no way of avoiding the conclusion that the real goal of the United States is dismantling Iran's nuclear infrastructure, regardless of its orientation, and to despatch Iran to the era of nuclear, scientific and technological illiteracy, which is in violation of the letter and spirit of the NPT.

Part II of this series will discuss why Iran must stop relying exclusively on oil and gas, and develop alternative sources of energy, and in particular nuclear energy.

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part II: Are Nuclear Reactors Necessary?

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part III: The Emerging Crisis