Imperial overreach in Iran


Iranian newspaper clip from 1968 reads: “A quarter of Iran’s Nuclear Energy scientists are women.” The photograph shows some female Iranian PhDs posing in front of Tehran‘s research reactor. PHOTO/Wikipedia

In the last week of June 2019, as this article was being written, tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments escalated sharply. On June 20, 2019, in response to aggressive U.S. actions, including the mobilization of troops, naval forces, and aerial provocations, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone flying  near the Iranian border.[i]  The U.S. government used this as an excuse to threaten to bomb Iran.[ii] The United States might implement this threat in the near future, setting off a wider conflict.

The origins of these tensions are often traced to the U.S. dispute with Iran on its nuclear programme. However, both the Iranian nuclear issue and the current war-tensions should be more properly viewed within the context of a four-decade-long effort by the United States to undermine the Iranian government and assert U.S. hegemony over West Asia.

In this article, I  will review the history of the Iranian nuclear issue from this perspective. This history is instructive because it sheds light on political trends both within the United States and Iran; it also reveals how arms-control issues have been used by Western nations to destabilize governments that they view unfavourably. I will conclude with some comments on the positions adopted by the Indian government, and a brief outlook on where these events might lead.


The origins of both the Iranian nuclear programme, and also the larger conflict between the United States and Iran,  can be traced back to two separate decisions made by the U.S. president,  Dwight Eisenhower. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration engineered a coup that removed the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the ruler of Iran.[iii]

In the same year, Eisenhower instituted the “Atoms for Peace” programme, under which the U.S. government transferred nuclear technology to countries that it felt were strategically important in the Cold War.  Although Eisenhower justified this policy by arguing nuclear materials could “serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind”[iv],  it is difficult for anyone—except for Western strategic analysts—to take this rhetoric seriously. By this time, it was already well understood that nuclear technology had a dual-use character: the same fissile material that could be used to produce nuclear energy could also be used to make a nuclear bomb.  In the Indian Constituent Assembly debates, several years earlier, Jawaharlal Nehru had already admitted that he did “not know how you are to distinguish between” research into nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.[v]

So the “Atoms for Peace” policy should be understood as a calculated decision made by Washington to allow a selected set of  foreign governments to achieve a level of “nuclear latency”, where they  would not possess an actual bomb but would be in a position to produce a weapon rapidly if required. The Unites States hoped to win the loyalty of these governments in this manner, but also retain a measure of control of them. This policy also aligned with the commercial interests of the incipient nuclear supplier lobby, which saw the U.S. lead in nuclear technology as an opportunity to export nuclear reactors globally on favourable terms.

Under the “Atoms for Peace” programme, the United States and then other European countries entered into a succession of agreements on nuclear cooperation with the Shah’s regime. In 1967, the United States provided Iran with its first nuclear reactor —the Tehran Research Reactor, located at Tehran university, which used highly enriched uranium. The Shah also procured a 10% stake in the European reactor-fuel company, Eurodiff, and sanctioned a $1 billion loan to assist with the construction of the Tricastin nuclear plant in France.[vi] A West German company, Kraftwerk Union, started to construct the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran.[vii]

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