One of the first things a person thinks of when they hear the word Iran is nuclear power, and even more specifically, nuclear weapons. Even though Iran is part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, an investigation conducted in 2003 by The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that Iran has been covertly working on establishing the capacity to produce fissile materials. This discovery was quite worrying to the West and to neighboring countries since nuclear weapons in Iran means an emboldened government, risk of proliferation (nuclear proliferation is the quick distribution of nuclear weapons to countries not recognized as the Nuclear Weapon States by the NPT), and a change to the political stability of the Middle East. But how did Iran, a Middle Eastern country that was behind the West in technological advances, acquire all of the nuclear power that it has right now?
It all started at the end of the Second World War after the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. With the formation of the United Nations, the first UN Resolution was to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction including atomic weapons, and later on have them outlawed. Yet the arrival of nuclear power meant the discovery of a clean renewable energy source that will greatly benefit all countries. So at the eighth UN General Assembly, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech which induced the establishment of IAEA in 1957, an institution devoted to the regulation of nuclear power in the world. It also provided assistance to the countries that had a need for nuclear power, providing them with a nuclear program on the condition of it being for civil and not military use. Iran was one of those countries but it all depended on the specific conditions Iran was going through at the time.
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was appointed as the new leader of Iran in 1941 at only 21 years of age after his father Reza Khan fled the country. Iran at the time was invaded by British and Soviet forces, the Great Powers, and his claiming the throne as a result of the Great Powers allowing him to do so. The new Shah had known of two truths at his political birth: that he was going to improve Iran’s military power to prevent the defenselessness that it underwent during the Great Powers invasion and that he was going to follow the lead of the Great Powers and let them manipulate his country, which was later on asserted by the British by sending a letter reminding him of his father’s fate. Which led to his early reign being conducted in the shadow of the British and Soviets. Which paradoxically led to Iran’s most democratic era, with its power shifting between five political poles: the court, the Majles, the cabinet, the foreign embassies, and the general public. The conflict between these poles was prominent but it wasn’t until Muhammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951 that a bigger conflict arose. Mossadegh was vocal in his opposition to the Anglo-Persian agreement over Iran’s oil and wanted to nationalize Iranian oil. The Shah, who was desperate to keep the Western powers happy, knew that he had to satisfy their thirst for oil. Mossadegh’s constant fight led to the 1953 coup (Operation Ajax) which caused Mossadegh to be overthrown, arrested, and tried, and convicted of treason, but was later allowed to live the rest of his life on house arrest.
After the coup d’état, the Shah grew more powerful since he no longer had Mossadegh to oppose him, had financial aid from the United States and he appointed the leaders of the coup in key positions (prime minister, military governor, and chief of general staff) which gave him support from the West. The Shah didn’t obtain total control of his country until he dismissed the previously CIA-appointed prime minister Zahedi in 1955, which started his gradual ascension to power. Something that helped accelerate his rule of the country was that he received technical assistance from the CIA, the FBI, and the Israeli intelligence service to form a new secret police force named SAVAK that took down all opposing parties from the Tudeh to the National Front. He also signed an agreement of sharing the profits equally which ended the oil dispute with the British and increased Iran’s oil revenues. With the substantial oil revenues and the military aid sent by the United States, the Shah was able to enforce his goal of expanding the armed forces and raising the military budget.
By the late 1950s, the shah had total control over the country and with the inflation, it was undergoing, he started following through on his plans of modernization. Using the monetary aid the US provided, he started a bunch of economic and social projects and with the flow of western goods and technologies in the country, he started to get closer to the modernization that he dreamed of, which he believed is basically westernization. But he was still looking for more progress, which the latest in the world was nuclear power. The shah believed that the final key to achieving true modernization was acquiring nuclear power, so when he got the chance to start a nuclear program in Iran he immediately agreed.
In 1957 the IAEA judged Iran of being a stable enough country to trust with nuclear technology, with the condition of not using it to create nuclear weapons. Iran was provided with several kilograms of US-enriched uranium and a 5 MW light-water research reactor. What shah failed to understand before this agreement is that this new technology was unknown to the scientists of Iran, and even though he thought this was a big step for modernization, Iran didn’t really have a way to use that new technology. That was until Akbar Etemad, a young nuclear physicist, came back in 1965 to Iran from studying in Geneva and Paris. Etemad heard of the news of the new nuclear technology in his country but was disappointed when he found out that the light water research reactor was sitting idle in the Tehran University waiting for someone to know how to operate it. Knowing that he has the capability of operating that technology and having sufficient qualifications to run the nuclear program, he took his diplomas and visited Asfia, the professor from Tehran University in charge of nuclear research. Asfia welcomed him and was relieved when he found out that Etemad knew how to start working on the nuclear program, he sent out his diplomas to the shah, and Etemad was immediately hired to work in Tehran University.
Starting work in the university, Etemad was shocked by the lack of productive work done on the nuclear reactor, along with realizing that there was no qualified personnel working on this project. The first thing he did was visit the American Machine and Foundry to diagnose and resolve the technical issues they were suffering. The second and more difficult thing which took about two years was to start a training program to acquire enough people to operate it on a sophisticated level. In 1968, the Atomic Research Center opened and started working on low-level nuclear technology.
In 1969, he started working with the Prime Minister of Iran on improving scientific research in Iran. What he noticed was the country’s lack of scientific professionalism and its appointing of bureaucrats in positions that scientific experts should be holding. He proposed that Iran should establish an independent, national organization dedicated purely to scientific research which led to the foundation of Iran’s Institute for Planning and Research in Science and Education with Etemad at its head. Even though he became the head of this institute, the launching of the nuclear program was the shah’s decision, and with his growing power and the country’s inflation, no one could stop his personal decisions to increase oil prices and to work on nuclear energy.
The Shah’s obsession with modernization made him desperate for nuclear energy, therefore in 1974, Etemad received a call stating that the Shah was growing impatient while waiting for nuclear energy, and wanted him to set up an independent body dedicated to nuclear energy, that he vaguely instructed that it will be used to generate electricity. Etemad accepted out of duty and set out a few conditions for that organization: it will be independent of the government and it will receive resources from Iran’s treasury. The Shah agreed to these conditions and to the way Etemad wanted to run things in a less than two hours meeting which launched the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). This organization was funded quickly and during the first year acquired around 100 people in addition to the Tehran Research Reactor and its staff that transferred to AEOI. Something that helped this speedy development of this organization was the seemingly limitless budget that it acquired from the treasury and all the decisions made by Etemad were immediately approved by the Majles without question. Etemad also made sure that the only financial report produced by the AEOI was an end-of-the-year expenditure report sent to the treasury. All of this was made possible by the Shah’s support of the program and his direct supervision of the AEOI and declared that he was the only government oversight needed for this organization. Etemad also became the Deputy Prime Minister of Iran, which many believed was an indication of the Shah’s desire to ally the nuclear industry directly with the center of political power but was in fact a decision made by the Prime Minister of Iran, Hoveida, to have a closer link to the AEOI.