The Roots of Iran's Nuclear Program

By Grier, Peter | The Christian Science Monitor, November 3, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Iran's Nuclear Program


Grier, Peter, The Christian Science Monitor


The head of the Orchid Office apparently thought he needed a little extra emphasis to make his point. The place was somewhere in Iran, shortly after Jan. 14, 2004. The occasion was a status report on activities of the Orchid Office - also known as "Project 111," Iran's effort to take a missile nose cone and outfit it with something that looks very much like a nuclear bomb.

The heart of the report was an update on such technical tasks as the development of a nose cone chamber of proper size. But the Orchid Office chief may have wanted to convey what he felt to be the historical importance of Iran's weapon activity. So he headed the first slide of his presentation with a motto, written in Farsi: "Fate changes no man unless he changes fate."

Fifty years after the shah first began to pursue nuclear energy technology, Iran's leaders may now be trying to change their nation's fate via acquisition of the most powerful weapons known to man.

Remember the "may." Tehran denies that it wants nuclear weapons, and says it is only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The account of the Orchid Office report came from intelligence acquired by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. That and other information in IAEA hands indicating weaponization activities is fake, says Iran. Iran's leaders may be split on the issue. It's possible - even probable - that they haven't yet decided whether to take the final step and actually produce a bomb.

But US officials are proceeding on the assumption that Iran wants nuclear weapons. They say that Tehran has hidden too much about its activities for them to think otherwise - and that today's Iranian leadership may see nukes as a prize capable of raising their nation to the world's top ranks.

There's a "widespread belief among experts that Iran's governing fractions perceive a nuclear weapons capability as a means of ending Iran's perceived historic vulnerability to invasion and domination by great powers, and as a symbol of Iran as a major nation," concludes Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, in a new report on Iran and US policy.

HOW DID IRAN REACH THIS POINT? The answer is more complicated than a quick glance at today's headlines might suggest. For one thing, Iran's nuclear efforts did not begin recently. They date back decades.

"Over the course of 50 years, perhaps the Iranian program could be described as 'fits and starts,' " says Sharon Squassoni, a senior associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ironically, the United States was Iran's first major supplier of nuclear technology. Washington signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the shah - a staunch American ally - in 1957, under President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program. Construction of a US-supplied research reactor began in the Tehran suburbs in 1960 and went critical, with US-supplied highly enriched uranium as fuel, in 1967.

But the shah wanted more than a nuclear toy. He had grandiose plans for a network of 23 nuclear power reactors by the 1990s, with much of the equipment purchased from US suppliers. And as recently declassified documents make clear, the course of nuclear negotiations between the shah and an array of US officials was far from smooth.

US worries were like those of today: Officials thought it possible that Iran would build on nuclear power programs to develop weapons technology.

A secret 1974 Defense Department memo, declassified and posted online by the National Security Archive, noted that stability in Iran depended heavily on the shah's personality.

"An aggressive successor to the Shah might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran's complete military dominance of the region," noted the memo.

The shah became increasingly irritated as a series of US presidents objected to his desire to reprocess spent reactor fuel on Iranian soil.

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