America's Role in Helping Iran Develop its Nuclear Program

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Yes, the U.S. once aided Tehran's civilian nuclear program, a reminder that even peaceful nuclear cooperation can have unintended consequences.

Iran nuke.jpg
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours the Tehran nuclear research reactor. (AP)

Iran's nuclear program poses a threat to many nations--particularly Israel and the United States. Yet, it is sometimes forgotten that Washington was an early supporter of Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The United States provided peaceful nuclear assistance to Iran from 1957 to 1979, when the two states were allies. Washington exported the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), enriched uranium to fuel it, and "hot cells," which can be used to produce plutonium--a critical ingredient for making nuclear weapons. All of this aid was provided for civilian uses, but it ended up indirectly augmenting Iran's nuclear weapons program. For example, from 1988 to 1992 Iran conducted covert plutonium reprocessing experiments using fuel pellets irradiated in the TRR.

The Iranian experience exposes a problem known as the dual-use dilemma: because nuclear technology has both peaceful and military applications, nuclear energy aid provides a potential foundation for a bomb program.

However, this danger has not deterred the United States from providing nuclear energy assistance to many countries. Today, for instance, Washington is in the midst of negotiating agreements with Jordan and Vietnam that would permit the sharing of nuclear technology, materials, and know-how.

Deals such as these could be a recipe for the further spread of nuclear weapons.

In a new book, I explore the relationship between peaceful nuclear assistance and nuclear proliferation. Based on an analysis of global nuclear commerce from 1945 to 2000, I show that states are much more likely to covet (and successfully build) nuclear weapons when they accumulate atomic assistance--particularly if they experience an international crisis after receiving aid.

Iran is just one of several proliferators that benefited from nuclear energy assistance. India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 using plutonium that was produced in a Canadian-supplied civilian reactor. Iraq probably intended to use a French-supplied civilian facility known as "Osiraq" for military purposes before it was bombed by Israel in 1981. And scientists from North Korea and South Africa received training--from the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively--under the auspices of civilian nuclear cooperation that ultimately facilitated nuclear proliferation.

The international community has instituted a variety of measures--including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards-- to limit the proliferation potential of peaceful nuclear aid. Yet, as Iran, Iraq, Libya, South Korea, and others have shown, motivated states can circumvent existing rules and regulations with relative ease.

Why, then, do countries provide peaceful nuclear assistance? Suppliers typically offer aid to "buy" cooperation from the recipient country. For example, the United States assisted Iran's nuclear program to shore up its military alliance with Tehran and to influence Iranian policies on oil pricing. Nuclear exporters hope that they can reap the political and economic benefits of nuclear assistance without contributing to nuclear proliferation. Yet, in the long run, their gambles often backfire.

The United States and other suppliers should revise their nuclear trade policies to prevent history from repeating itself. Requiring customers to refrain from building indigenous uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing plants (these facilities can produce bomb-grade materials) after accumulating relevant knowledge through peaceful nuclear assistance would be a particularly fruitful policy. Washington has so far expressed little enthusiasm about applying this policy across the board. However, swift action is needed to help prevent future crises like the one that is ongoing in Iran.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Matthew Fuhrmann, an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University, is the author of Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity.

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