Reuters reported last night that Iran and major powers extended the deadline to negotiate an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program to at least Friday. The comprehensive deal under discussion is aimed at curbing, and reversing in some cases, Iran’s nuclear work for the last decade or more, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that have slashed Iran’s oil exports and crippled its economy.
It is unclear whether an agreement will be reached, but it is sure that few in Congress will be happy with the outcome, regardless if there is an agreement or not.
It may be useful to remember that Iran’s Nuclear Program was a child of Washington in the first place. It is possible to date the start of Iran’s nuclear program to December 8, 1953, the date that President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered what was later called his Atoms for Peace speech to the UN.
Eisenhower laid out a program to use atomic energy “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” Under the program, the US would provide research reactors, fuel, and scientific training to developing countries eager to harness the power of the atom.
Among the first countries to take the United States up on its offer was Iran.
In 1957, Tehran and the US signed a nuclear cooperation agreement, called the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms. Two years later, in 1959, the Shah of Iran created a Nuclear Research Center at the University of Tehran, and in 1967, the US delivered a five-megawatt nuclear research reactor and the enriched uranium needed to fuel it. In addition, the Atoms for Peace program offered Iran a chance to study in the US, since they had no homegrown nuclear experts. This lack of nuclear engineers meant that Iran could not use the US-delivered Tehran research reactor for nearly a decade.
Needing nuclear experts, Iran turned to MIT in 1975 to create a special program to provide Iranian experts with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy. This program gave Iran its first group of professional nuclear engineers. The first nuclear reactor that we provided would later be used by Tehran to carry out some of its more controversial work, including some of the country’s earliest experiments with uranium enrichment.
Iran later admitted to using that same reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance that could be used to start a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.
Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in July 1968, on the first day it was opened for signature. Tehran ratified the treaty in 1970, putting it among the first states to do so and on paper, giving it the right to enrich uranium.
It is useful to remember that Israel, the most vocal critic of a nuclear deal with Iran, remains one of just four nuclear capable states (India, Pakistan and North Korea) that have not signed the NPT.
But despite early cooperation, signs of distrust between Washington and Tehran emerged early. Like today, Washington was concerned with Iranian plans to reprocess used (“spent”) nuclear fuel. The separated plutonium from this process can be used to fuel reactors, but also can be used to make nuclear weapons. To make sure nuclear materials were not diverted to making weapons, Mr. Eisenhower proposed establishing a watchdog within the UN. That watchdog would later become the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that we rely on today for nuclear inspections.
Juan Cole reports that, according to declassified national security documents, from 1975 and 1976, Washington opposed Iranian plans to build a nuclear reprocessing facility, and the issue became a major sticking point in negotiations to sell US nuclear power reactors to Iran:
The US used to have a policy of promoting reprocessing because it was a way of recycling useful atoms…But this policy changed right at the end of the Gerald Ford administration and then reinforced by Jimmy Carter…to no longer support, and, in fact, to oppose reprocessing.
Washington’s nuclear cooperation with Iran came to an abrupt halt in 1979, swept away by the Iranian Revolution that ended the rule of the Shah. With the capture of our embassy in Tehran and the holding of American hostages for 444 days, all formal ties between Washington and Tehran were cut off until the start of the current nuclear negotiations.
Atoms for Peace provided Iran with a foundation for its nuclear program. It offered both key technologies along with education in nuclear engineering and physics. The program clearly helped Iran move up the nuclear learning curve.
Now, the question is, can Secretary of State Kerry put the toothpaste back in the tube?