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“Atoms For Peace”: When It Comes To A Nuclear Iran, Was The US Responsible For Giving Them Nuclear Technology?

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Published on: January 16, 2020

Just as in most things in the Middle East that the US tends to involve itself in, the reality is that we usually are the ones that provide the very things when siding with a country that we later accuse them of using in order to invade them.  For instance, the US provided chemical weapons to Iraq to use against Iran and later claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction for which we invaded them.  Is the same true concerning the issue of Iran’s nuclear program?  The evidence suggests that we just may have provided them with that foundation for nuclear technology via President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace.”

In looking up some information on the history of Iran and the US, along with the issue of nuclear technology, I ran across an article that spoke about what I mentioned above.

This actually came from History.com.

For several decades, the U.S. has sought to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But ironically, the reason Iran has the technology to build these weapons in the first place is because the U.S. gave it to Iran between 1957 and 1979. This nuclear assistance was part of a Cold War strategy known as “Atoms for Peace.”

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The strategy’s name comes from Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, given before the United Nations General Assembly in 1953. In it, he suggested that promoting the non-military use of nuclear technology could discourage countries from using it to create nuclear weapons, or “Atoms for War.”

The speech came only eight years after the invention of the atomic bomb, at a time when the U.S. was anxious to keep these new and frightening weapons from proliferating around the world. Strange as it sounds, President Eisenhower viewed his “Atoms for Peace” strategy partly as a form of arms control.

“He thought that sharing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes would reduce the incentives of countries to want to make nuclear bombs,” says Matthew Fuhrmann, a political science professor at Texas A&M University and author of Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity. For example, countries can use nuclear technology to generate electricity through nuclear power plants or produce radioisotopes for medical purposes. 

“The alternative, of course, was to just try and set up an international embargo that would restrict the transfer of any nuclear technology to any state that didn’t already possess it,” Fuhrmann says. However, Eisenhower feared an embargo would “make other countries want the technology more,” possibly increasing “their resolve to eventually get it and maybe use it for more sinister purposes.”

Keep in mind, President Eisenhower is the same president that warned the American people of the military industrial complex.

Here’s Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953.  The full text of the speech can be read here.

However, as History.com points out, there was another dimension to “Atoms for Peace.”

Nuclear technology was something valuable and new, and it conferred a certain status on countries that had it. The U.S. viewed providing other countries with the technology as a means of gaining influence over those states and achieving political goals. To that end, the U.S. provided nuclear assistance to countries it wanted to influence, such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and Iran.

At the time, the U.S. was closely allied with Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. So closely, in fact, that when Iran toppled the Shah’s monarchy and democratically elected a prime minister, the CIA staged a 1953 coup d’état that put the Shah back in power. Part of the reason the U.S. valued Iran as an ally was because of its strategic location bordering the Soviet Union. During the early part of the Cold War, the U.S. set up a base in Iran to monitor Soviet activity.

In this context, the United States’ nuclear cooperation with Iran “was, in part, a means to shore up the relationship between those countries,” Fuhrmann says. The cooperation lasted until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah and the U.S. lost the country as an ally.

All of the nuclear technology the U.S. provided Iran during those years was supposed to be for peaceful nuclear development. But the “Atoms for Peace” strategy ended up having some unintended consequences.

You see?  That 1953 CIA coup did have consequences.

The 1953 CIA-Backed Coup: The One Thing That Never Comes Up When The War Drums Beat Against Iran

While the mainstream media and conservative talking heads ignore virtually anything before 1979, the reality is that the US seemed to want to provide nuclear technology to Iran, but today it wants to invade and go to war with Iran over it.

“A lot of that infrastructure could also be used to produce plutonium or weapons-grade, highly-enriched uranium, which are the two critical materials you need to make nuclear bombs,” Fuhrmann says. In effect, the U.S. laid the foundations for the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Brookings.edu substantiates History.com’s claims.

The Atoms for Peace program provided the foundations for Iran’s nuclear program by providing key nuclear technology and education. Iran’s nuclear program began under Mohamed Reza Shah’s rule in 1957, after the United States and Iran agreed to a civilian nuclear cooperation arrangement, known as the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms, through the Atoms for Peace program. Two years later, the Shah established the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), located at the University of Tehran, and began to negotiate with the United States to provide Iran with nuclear technology and materials.

In 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with highly enriched uranium to fuel the reactor, housed at the TRNC. The reactor, under safeguards, had the capability to produce up to 600 grams of plutonium per year in spent fuel. Akbar Etemad, deemed the father of Iran’s nuclear program, later revealed that the TNRC was the site of experiments with chemically extracting plutonium. Iran also admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance that can be used to start a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.

However, Iran states the production of Polonium-210 was used for research on production of neutron sources to be used in radio isotopic thermoelectric generators, not nuclear weapons. Moreover, the TRNC is thought to be the location of earlier Iranian experiments on enriching uranium through laser isotope separation, a method that Iran appears to have been researching since the mid-1970s. Whatever Iran’s true intentions with the TRNC, it seems clear that the technology provided by the United States allowed Iran to further its nuclear program in ways that went beyond what was originally intended.

In addition to providing technology, the Atoms for Peace program provided the opportunity for Iranians to receive scientific and technological education in the United States. This educational training was crucial to the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program. For example, because Iran lacked large numbers of individuals trained in nuclear engineering and physics, the Tehran research reactor sat idle for nearly a decade, as it did not have adequate manpower to run. The Shah also needed manpower to meet his lofty ambition of rapidly expanding nuclear energy. In 1974, he announced his desire to construct 20 nuclear power reactors in the following 20 years. Subsequently, he called for the establishment of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to control and monitor nuclear energy.

To meet these rising demands, the AEOI concluded an agreement with MIT in 1975 to provide a specialized master’s program to provide Iranians with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy. This program provided Iran with its first set of professional nuclear engineers. In 1976, the Shah raised the budget of the AEOI from $31 million to $1 billion, in part because he recognized the significance of the training provided to Iranians.

Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States abruptly ended its civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran and ended its supply of highly enriched uranium. Despite the termination of Atoms for Peace assistance to Iran, Iran still received support from different sources. While the United States exerted its influence to limit Iran’s collaboration with other states, Iran was still able to find partners to expand its nuclear program, including in areas applicable to the military use of nuclear energy. Particularly influential for the development of Iran’s nuclear program in those areas were Pakistan’s AQ Khan, China and Russia.

Additionally, Foreign Policy adds:

Iran’s nuclear program began in 1959 with a small reactor given by the United States to Tehran University as part of the “Atoms for Peace” program announced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in December 1953. But that only whetted the Iranian monarch’s appetite: With his increased oil revenues, and with his new vision of Iran as the hegemonic force in the region, a nuclear program became for Shah Pahlavi the symbol of progress and power. He summoned Akbar Etemad, a trained nuclear physicist, to the royal court in 1973, told him of his desire to launch a nuclear program, and asked Etemad to develop a master plan.

Two weeks later, the shah met with Etemad again. He quickly read the 13-page draft document Etemad had prepared, then turned to the prime minister and ordered him to fund what turned out be one of the most expensive projects undertaken by his regime. There was no prior discussion in the Majlis, where the constitutional power of the purse lay, or in any other governmental body or council. Like every major policy decision in those days, it was a one-man act. Thus was launched Iran’s nuclear program.

The shah’s plans called for a “full-fledged nuclear power industry” with the capacity to produce 23,000 megawatts of electricity. By 1977, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) had more than 1,500 employees (who were, on the shah’s orders, allowed to become the highest-paid government employees). Pahlavi had arranged for the training of Iranian nuclear experts around the world (including a $20 million endowment at MIT), engaged in an intensive search for uranium mines in Iran and all over the planet, and launched several nuclear research centers across the country. AEOI was in those days one of the most heavily funded programs in the country. In 1976, its budget was $1.3 billion, making it, after the country’s oil company, the single biggest public economic institution in the country.

While Germany and France showed immediate eagerness to sell Iran its desired reactors, the United States was initially reluctant to sell any, “without conditions limiting [the shah’s] freedom of action,” according to the text of a U.S. governmental memo. The German company Kraftwerk signed the first agreement to build the now-famous Bushehr reactor with an initial completion date of 1981 and an estimated cost of $3 billion. As Bushehr was located in a dangerous zone that was prone to frequent and strong seismic activity, extra funds were set aside to protect the site against the dangers of an earthquake. It was said at the time that the German government was so eager to find a foothold in the Iranian market that it guaranteed Kraftwerk’s investment against any loss. U.S. companies, on the other hand, were barred from these contracts until Washington’s concerns about the shah’s intentions were addressed.

The shah was adamant that Iran should enjoy its “full rights,” as he put it at the time, within the NPT — an agreement Iran had immediately signed upon its formulation and that calls for non-nuclear states to forfeit the search for a nuclear bomb in return for easy access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But Iran not only insisted on the right to have the full fuel cycle, it also was interested in processing plutonium — a faster way to a nuclear bomb than enriched uranium.

Whatever you think of Iran or them possessing nuclear technology whether for nuclear energy or otherwise, it was the united States that provided it to them while seeking to undermine the government of Iran on various occasions.

While Eisenhower certainly recognized the destructive nature of nuclear weapons and thus the reasoning behind his “Atoms for Peace” platform, that has not deterred the US from having them or developing more of them since his time in office, although we have seen nuclear technology turned into energy.

For more on the history of Iran, check out my interview with Victor Porlier.

What You Haven’t Been Told About Iran & The Middle East

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