Iran and Atoms for Peace: The Origins of the Islamic Republic’s Nuclear Narrative

For the past 18 months, I have been slowly working my way through the Atomic Energy Commission’s “Atoms for Peace” archives to piece together the differences between Turkey and Iran’s nuclear decision making. Thus, while I often write about Turkey related issues, I have, for at least the last five years of my life, been researching and studying Iranian nuclear decision-making.

As the latest talks in Geneva begin today, I thought it useful to provide some context to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s spiffy youtube video, where he explains the rationale for Iran’s nuclear program.

In November 1955, the United States embassy in Iran was in touch with Mahmoud Hessabi, who, at the request of the Iranian embassy, “[had] been preparing a statement of hopes, plans, and facilities for the [planned] nuclear research center at the University of Tehran.” Hessabi – a nuclear physicist – established the University of Tehran in 1934. He formulated a curriculum that focused on sciences, technology, literature and philosophy. He has since been dubbed the “father of Iranian physics.” In late 1955, the Majlis approved $132,000 for the nuclear research laboratory at the University of Tehran. As part of this initial effort, Manouchehr Eqbal presented to the United States 21 candidates for U.S. atomic energy studies grants. The U.S. embassy concluded that “one or two” of the twenty-one appeared to be qualified for study in the United States. [1] In fact, throughout Iran’s early negotiations with the United States, it was Eqbal – and not the Shah – that oversaw the nuclear effort.

According to the US Embassy in Tehran, there were only “two or three physicists” at the University of Tehran capable of directing research and no technicians trained to support them. The United States, therefore, recommended sending a team from the AEC to help advise Iran and to make recommendations about the direction of the Iranian nuclear research program. Nevertheless, in once classified telegrams, the United States concluded that a $300,000 atoms for peace grant would cover “all of the cost of the reactor itself” including “a considerable portion of supporting laboratory and equipment and building.” Yet, owing the United States’ adherence to the cost-sharing principle, the host government was expected “to make a substantial contribution to the research reactor project,” though that contribution need not have matched the American contribution. [2] (In fact, the Finance Ministry allocated $390,00 as a partial payment in March 1958. Eqbal, likely in consultation with Hessabi drew up a nuclear wish list in June 1956. That wish list included items that totaled more than $1 million. While I don’t have any documentation, I strongly suspect that Iran purchased most – if not all – of the items on the wish list.)

Despite the United States’ willingness to provide a substantial grant, as late as March 1956, the AEC had yet to send anyone to Iran to advise Eqbal and others about the project. At that time, there was a “shortage of qualified individuals [in the United States] to send out as consultants.” Therefore the U.S. suggested that the AEC only send someone to Iran, once the Iranian interest in nuclear energy fully materialized, i.e., Iran formally began talks with the United States for a nuclear cooperation agreement. [3]

While Iran dragged its feet on beginning nuclear talks with the United States, Iranian scientists first began to study at the Baghdad Pact’s nuclear research center in Iraq in March 1957. The center was later moved to Tehran, after the overthrow of King Faisal II. Iran hosted the research institute at the University of Tehran with British supplied equipment. The United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Authority “provided the Director and five other scientists out of the Institute’s total complement of twelve staff members.” The core curriculum focused on the basic fields of nuclear physics, electronics, radiochemistry, and health physics. The regional staff were largely culled from biological sciences and cooperated closely with the British staff on the medical and agricultural applications of nuclear science. As of 1960, for example, the projects in progress were: Water-flow studies by radioactive labeling and tritium counting; testing of cement and of archeological specimens by beta-ray back scattering; solvent extraction and ion exchange work in solution chemistry; synthesis of labeled carbon-14 compounds; observation of cytological changes in plant grown under the influence of phosphate labeled with phosphorus-32; and a study of the food reserves of certain insects. These projects were in addition to radioscopic training. [4]

It was only in July 1956 that Iran’s Ambassador to the United States, Ali Amini, formally sent a letter to Secretary of State Dulles indicating Iran’s interest in concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. The United States finished drafting the agreement in September 1956 and shortly thereafter Amini received instruction from the Shah to sign it. It is unlikely that Iran made any changes to the text of the agreement (Can you imagine that nowadays). However, for “the best effect” the United States and Iran agreed to delay the announcement until late fall, when Tehran would host an exhibit for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Shah later pushed the signing date back to March 1957, so as to coincide with an Atoms for Peace conference in Tehran. The Shah wanted to get a lot of bang for his political buck, even though it delayed the bringing of the agreement into force. [5] (As a side note, this was the area where the Shah most active in the early negotiations – up until then, it was Eqbal who led the talks.)

The agreement was signed on 5 March 1957. The original press release indicated that Iran would be sent “up to six kilograms of uranium enriched up to maximum of 20 percent U-235.” (this was later changed and Iran received 99% enriched uranium.) Moreover, the statement indicated that the United States’ interest in “further cooperation at some future date of an agreement in the field of nuclear power.” In addition, the U.S. made clear that “Iranians [had] been among the enrollees … at the International School for Nuclear Science and Engineering operated for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission by Argonne National Laboratory in cooperation with Pennsylvania State University and North Carolina State College.” [6] (NSCU was a model of sorts for Iran’s nuclear research center.)

Yet, after the signing ceremony, the Iranian side failed to take the final step to bring the agreement into force for close to two years. In September 1957, a representative from American Machine and Foundry informed the State Department’s Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian affairs that the necessary note from the Iranian side indicating that the statutory provisions that would allow for the agreement come intro force had not been put in place. The lack of a focused Iranian effort to finalize the agreement is a further indication that it was not the Shah’s highest priority and was therefore not part of any focused top-down plan to develop an indigenous nuclear program (This is understandable, given what was going on inside Iran at that time).

Moreover, in an indication of the priority the government attached to the ratification of the agreement, Owen T. Jones, the Director of the Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian affairs, wrote “the translation of the documents needed for consideration of the Majlis had just been translated and awaited [Iranian Foreign Minister] Ardalan on his return from the UN.” Moreover, at that time, the Majlis was not in session, meaning that the agreement would not be ratified until October 1957 at the earliest. In fact, Iran only ratified the agreement on 1 February 1959. Shortly thereafter, on 4 February, Iran sent a letter to Dulles announcing the bringing into force of the arrangement. The Shah then signed the agreement on 8 February. The United States responded on 29 March and indicated that the agreement was now in force. [7]

I have included the agreement below. Yet, just for fun, I thought it interesting to include Article V in this blog post. According to the agreement: Materials of interest in connection with defined research projects related to the peaceful uses of atomic energy undertaken by the Government of Iran, including source materials, special nuclear materials, byproduct material, other radioisotopes, and stable isotopes, will be sold or otherwise transferred to the Government of Iran by the Commission for research purposes in such quantities and under such terms and conditions as may be agreed when such materials are not available commercially. In no case, however, shall the quantity of special nuclear materials under the jurisdiction of the Government of Iran, by reason of transfer under this Article, be, at any one time, in excess of 100 grams of contained U-235, 10 grams of plutonium, and 10 grams of U-233.

Image

I am not quite sure what this Article is in reference to, though I suspect it has something to do with the CENTO nuclear research center and the research that Iranian students were doing at the time at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) at the University of Tehran. According to interviews with scientists working at the TNRC at the time, one area of focus before the reactor came online was radiation protection. (For reference, I don’t think it was an Iranian request, given that they did not change the US draft language when the agreement was first proposed.)

The 5 MW reactor at the TNRC first went critical on 11 November 1967. It was taken to full power on 19 December 1967. At that time, the reactor operator described the experience to me as wanting to “show the world that they could do this [start up and operate the reactor] on their own.” Iran hoped to use the reactor to bolster it physics research and to produce medical isotopes. [8] (Thus, one can see the parallel to today’s discourse.)

In the 1960s, Iran had only between 70 and 80 PhD students that were trained in France and Germany working at the university. Yet, in a testament to Iran’s dedication to advancing its nuclear industry, (And, in this case, having oil revenues to finance the program certainly helped) there were 800 PhDs working in Iran by 1973. Moreover, the AEOI had 3,000 employees at the time of the Islamic Revolution. [9]

In turn, one cannot expect Iran to simply roll back its nuclear program along the lines proposed by Israel. It has been a government priority since 1957. While the government after the Revolution certainly scaled the program back between 1979 and ~1982, the Islamic Republic certainly turned its attention to the nuclear program in or around ~1984. Now, here is where we get to the current issues with the IAEA. While much of the current focus is on the wording of a draft agreement, the crux of the West’s suspicions stem from the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. These issues have been discussed at length, though they are largely captured in the November 2004 IAEA Board Report, the February 2008 report, and the November 2011 report. The deal, therefore, should focus on ensuring that Iran cannot act on its alleged indiscretions. Thus, I agree with my colleague Shashank Joshi, who writes that the current framework of the proposed deal lengthens the time in which Iran can break out and enrich its stockpile of LEU to HEU. In turn, I trust that Iran and the P5+1 can impose restrictions on the program to ensure that Iran cannot divert nuclear material for non-peaceful uses without being caught by the IAEA.

As always, tweet comments and criticisms to @aaronstein1

——————

[1] Incoming Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/11-1455, 14 November 1955, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558.

[2] Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/11-1455, 2 December 1955, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558.

[3] Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/11-1455, 14 March 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558;  Incoming Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/11-1455, 29 March 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558; Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/11-1455, 3 April 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558

[4] H.A.C. McKay, “CENTO Institute of Nuclear Science in Tehran,” Nature, vol. 186, no. 4724, (14 May 1960), pg. 514.

[5] Incoming Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/9-1356, 13 September 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558;  Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/7-1856, 18 September 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558; Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/9-1356, 31 October 1956, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558.

[6] Outgoing Telegram, Department of State, File no. 611.8897/3-157, 1 March 1957, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558.

[7] Paul J. Sturm, The Foreign Service of the United States of America, Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian affairs, File no. 611.8897/9-1657, 16 September 1957, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2558.

[8] Dr. Mehdi Sarram, Former Director of Nuclear Safeguards and Training at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Interview by Aaron Stein, Los Angeles, 13 April 2013.

[9] Ibid

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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One Response to Iran and Atoms for Peace: The Origins of the Islamic Republic’s Nuclear Narrative

  1. Pingback: Iran’s Conversion and Enrichment Program: Setting the Record Straight | Turkey Wonk: Nuclear and Political Musings in Turkey and Beyond

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