Iran’s nuclear program was founded in 1957 as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. As part of this deal, the United States helped provide the training, technology and infrastructure allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. It was America that built Iran’s first nuclear reactor in 1967, subsequently providing them with the highly-enriched uranium to power it.
Soon thereafter, Iran began researching how to weaponize the technology. Ironic from today’s vantage point, Israel played a pivotal role in helping Tehran develop this capacity–much to the chagrin of the United States at the time. Washington would soon see further “Atoms for Peace” investments in India, Pakistan and Israel translated into weapons programs—with these latter three refusing to sign onto the U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and eventually obtaining the bomb. In a further irony, all three have emerged as critical U.S. allies in the region despite these maneuvers.
For his part, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did sign onto the treaty in 1968, although this did not end his ambition for weaponized nuclear capacity, which was ultimately brought to a halt by the 1979 Islamic Revolution which drove him from power.
Iran’s new religious leadership not only reaffirmed the NPT signed by the deposed dictator, but Ayatollah Khomeini disparaged nuclear weapons as haram under Islamic law–a binding fatwa reiterated and expanded in 2005 by Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
However, Western leaders distrusted Iran’s religious government, and have from the outset sought to contain or even overthrow the Islamic Republic. Iran’s nuclear program became the primary means of justifying these ambitions in 1995 when, as a result of extensive lobbying by AIPAC, the United States first declared Iran’s nuclear program as a national security threat and priority.
Since that time, much of the intelligence supposed to demonstrate Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has been falsified and heavily politicized—even to the point where the IAEA has recently initiated an extensive review of their past reports on Iran’s nuclear program, worried that key evidence provided to the agency by Israel, the U.S. and the MEK may have been tampered with or be otherwise unreliable. The organization has not been able to substantiate that the Islamic Republic has everhad a nuclear weapons program.
Even U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, who endorse (and generally provided) this intelligence are in agreement that the Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program has been inactive for more than a decade, with no evidence that the Islamic Republic intends to “sprint” for the bomb in the foreseeable future. Instead, all parties agree that Iran has been fully compliant with the terms of the nuclear negotiations entered into in 2013.
Why Does Iran Want Nuclear Power?
Critics of Iran often wonder why the Islamic Republic is pursuing nuclear technology so doggedly, if their intentions are strictly peaceful–given the country’s extensive fossil-fuel resources, nuclear power seems superfluous in their estimation.
There are a number of reasons:
First, Iran’s nuclear program has been an important focal point of national pride–and not just since the Islamic Revolution, but really since the program was initially developed under Pahlavi.
While the aforementioned NPT calls on nations to refrain from developing or proliferating nuclear weapons technology, the treaty affirms it as a right for all signatories to enrich uranium and develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. And given that, as we have explored, critics have failed to demonstrate that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is anything but peaceful—Iranians believe that it is the U.S. and its allies who are violating international norms and laws by carrying out hostile actions against a non-aggressor state with the express aim of undermining said nation’s sovereignty and denying their rights.
But there are pragmatic dimensions as well.
Yes, Iran is a fossil-fuel superpower, possessing more than 10% of the world’s total proven oil reserves, 15% of its natural gas reserves, and 1.9 billion short-tonnes of coal reserves. However, these “dirty” energy sources are increasingly subject to regulations and fees aimed at limiting and reducing their use; much of the world is increasingly moving off of fossil fuels to renewables, and seeking to dramatically increase fuel efficiency in the interim.
While there will be increased energy demands in the developing world in the coming years, China is increasingly committed to reducing its carbon footprint as well. Energy producers may continue to sell fossil fuels to other developing nations, for instance in India and across Africa, but it will likely be at a much lower price.
This is in part because, even as demand for fossil-fuels is set to decline across the richest countries, the supply is expanding dramatically: the United States has ramped up its energy production and exports (to include becoming a net-exporter of petroleum); there may be a similar shale-boom coming in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Oil from Libya and Iraq would make a huge impact on global supplies if and when those countries become more fully-operational. And despite the increasing glut in the energy market, countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia have been relentless about maintaining production.
So betting on nuclear over fossil fuels is an attempt to be on the right side of dynamics in the energy market–especially given that oil prices are already painfully low, even to the point of destabilization, for those nations whose economies rely principally on the sale of these fuels.
Diversifying Iran’s energy portfolio is also a means of ensuring that they will be able to continue selling fossil fuels down the line. For instance, due to increased urbanization and other trends– not only will Saudi Arabia be unable to continue to sell oil indefinitely, they are projected to become an oil importer by 2030: domestic demand will exceed production. And because the entire Saudi economy is premised on oil sales, it is not clear how it will continue to function once the country burns through its (admittedly immense) monetary reserves.
An integrated Iran would likely see a similar boom in domestic energy use. By using nuclear energy to offset increased local demand, Iran would protect its ability to continue selling fossil fuels internationally over the medium-to-long term.
There are also myriad other important but peaceful applications of nuclear technology in the domains of medicine, industry and agriculture. In short, Iran has a legitimate stake in nuclear power, and they argue, a legitimate right to develop it.
However, given the high financial and other costs of producing nuclear power, when paired with the risks these plants could pose to the health of the public and habitats, Iran may be better served in the long term by pursuing options like wind, solar and hydropower. To the extent that economic normalization, when paired with continued limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment and production capabilities, provides the incentive and opportunity for Iran to pursue these alternative energy sources, they will be stronger for it.
In fact, given the Islamic Republic’s high and growing degree of technical sophistication (ranking among the top of the world in spite of the sanctions), and their acute awareness of the dangers of climate change, they could easily become a world leader in this domain–commensurate with the Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent call for swift action to protect the environment, which he described as a divine obligation for Muslims, and for human beings in general.