When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his case to Congress today against a nuclear deal with Iran, his argument will draw heavily on the untrustworthiness of that country’s theocratic rulers.
As he argued in his United Nations speech last fall, Iran’s millenarian vision of an Islamic world government animates its effort to get the bomb.
“Once Iran produces atomic bombs,” he said, “the ayatollahs will show their true face and unleash their aggressive fanaticism on the entire world.”
It’s tempting to make mad mullahs the face of the Iranian nuclear problem. But the arc of Iran’s nuclear program before the 1979 revolution suggests something else: Obtaining the weapons has long been a central goal as Iran endeavors to secure its position as a power in the Middle East.
This history suggests that, even now, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are more likely to be managed than extinguished. And in the current context, the best one can hope for would be an imperfect negotiated agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that leaves some enrichment capacity intact.
The two-decade history of Iran’s nuclear program under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is one of growing ambitions and deceptions. Although the shah was a close ally – his grip on power was cemented by an American-instigated coup – his nuclear efforts met with mounting alarm on the part of the U.S., which signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran as part of the Atoms for Peace Program in 1957.
During the early 1960s, the U.S. sold a five-megawatt research reactor to Tehran University. By the early 1970s, citing a need to save oil reserves and develop Iran’s technological capabilities, the shah announced a sweeping plan to build enough nuclear plants to generate 23,000 megawatts of energy by 1994. A few months after making that splash, and shortly after India’s first nuclear test in May 1974, the shah turned heads by telling a French magazine that Iran would have nuclear weapons, “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.”
U.S. anxiety over the shah’s nuclear program is highlighted in a compendium of declassified cables and memos assembled by the National Security Archive. One June 1974 Department of Defense memo, for instance, notes that the planned nuclear power plants (including eight from U.S. companies) could produce enough plutonium for 600 to 700 warheads.
Using language that echoes the protests of Iran’s current leaders, the shah and his ministers insisted that no country “has a right to dictate nuclear policy to another” and that “Iran should have full right to decide whether to reprocess” fuel.
U.S. policymakers wrestled to come up with ways to ensure control over reprocessing, suggesting a multinational enrichment facility or one jointly operated and controlled by the U.S. and Iran.
In a November 1975 cable, Ambassador Richard Helms (previously head of the Central Intelligence Agency) in Tehran laments the impasse over how much enriched uranium Iran can store and its “right” to reprocess U.S.-supplied fuel without prior U.S. approval:
“We do not believe it is realistic to expect that Iran will alter its position on these issues substantially. We are thus confronted with the option of continuing the impasse through insistence on holding to our own position or attempting to accommodate Iran on these questions. We recommend that we take the latter course of action … and instead assure the GOI of US participation in a binational reprocessing plant under mutually agreeable safeguards.”
As it happened, the final draft of the proposed agreement prepared in 1978 under the Jimmy Carter administration allowed for no reprocessing in Iran, and reprocessing outside Iran only with U.S. approval. But before it could be signed, the regime collapsed.
Subsequent revelations made clear the shah’s intent to acquire the ability to build a bomb. In fact, a 2013 documentary, “Before the Revolution,” hints that Israel may have been one of the countries that helped to advance his nuclear ambitions.
The Israelis, of course, know how hard it is to stop the nuclear train from leaving the station. Another National Security Archive cable trove covers the Nixon administration’s unsuccessful tussles with Israel over its covert nuclear program, which one 1969 Pentagon memo called “the single most dangerous phenomenon in an area dangerous enough without nuclear weapons.”
So, the U.S. and its partners should by all means set a stringent inspection regime and limits on Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear material. But don’t expect the 10-year nuclear freeze reportedly under discussion in Geneva to turn ugly militant ducklings into nuke-free secular swans.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.