Iran and nuclear power before the revolution*

Antonella Vicini

who wants can read the english version. written for Reset last year, but evergreen


When did the Iranian nuclear issue become a taboo? And why? Since 2003 there has officially been talk of an Iranian nuclear threat, following two reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency published in June and September, both emphasizing that the Islamic Republic of Iran had not provided sufficient information concerning its nuclear programmes.

The first warning had come about a year earlier, on August 14th 2002, from Alireza Jafarzadeh (author of the book The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis) during a conference in Washington when he disclosed that most of Iran’s secret nuclear programme addressed at military and not civilian use, was hidden at the Natanz plant. The central issue in this crisis concerned the real objectives of Iran’s nuclear programme. In his disclosures Jafarzadeh spoke of equipment for uranium enrichment in Natanz and of another plant in Arak where heavy water was allegedly being used. It is no coincidence that Natanz has become one of the plants on which the United States and the European Union are concentrating their attention.

Jafarzadeh is not only a political analyst and commentator, but also an Iranian dissident, a member of that National Council of Resistance of Iran with headquarters in Paris and greatly opposed by the regime in Teheran because it includes most of the People’s Mujahedin (known as the MKO) who were on the European Union’s black list until 2009 because of their terrorist activities in Iran. There is also another dissident, Ebrahim Yazdi, who is disliked by the ayatollahs and lives in the United States after he resigned as deputy head of the government and as Foreign Minister when the United States Embassy in Tehran was taken. However, when interviewed about Iran’s nuclear programme, he mentioned how before the Islamic revolution, his country’s nuclear ambitions were encouraged by the same powers that now oppose Tehran’s potential atomic power.

Atoms for peace

Iran’s nuclear programme began in 1959 with a small reactor presented by the United States to the University of Tehran as part of the “Atoms for Peace” project, launched in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and aimed at providing nuclear know-how for peaceful objectives in the middle of the Cold War.

From then on Pahlavi’s Iran moved towards total energy independence and nuclear autonomy, pushing down the accelerator and exploiting his excellent relations with the West (after the coup d’état that in 1953 removed Mossadeq, guilty of having attempted to nationalize oil). This did not, however, prevent the Shah from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, effectively accepting the containment doctrine promoted by the three powers that won the Second World War. For the Shah, nuclear power became the centre of his intense political propaganda, evidence of his imperial power. So while the British and the ‘seven sisters’ continued to manage Persia’s black gold, these same players participated in this new great business.

The Persian Eldorado

In those years Iran was what Kapuscinski described as “the new Eldorado” where presidents, delegates and managers fought to enter economic and trade agreement in all sectors. At the time, the Secret Police, the Savak, was already known for its atrocities and its violent repression of dissidents, but Iran was considered a credible partner by the West. The much discussed Bushehr plant was started in this context and is the result of a contribution provided by the German company Kraftwerk, the result of a merger between AEG and Siemens. The agreement signed in 1975 established it would be completed by 1981, costing 3 million euro with the Italian company Ansaldo participating in this investment.

That same year, the French-Belgian-Spanish-Swedish company Eurodif, operating in the uranium enrichment sector, moved 10% of its shares to Iran, through its French subsidiary Cogéma, creating a company with French and Iranian capital called Sofidif (Société franco–iranienne pour l’enrichissement de l’uranium par diffusion gazeuse); a company that recently caused France a degree of embarrassment now that the country has become an ardent supporter in the battle against Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Confirmation of the Shah’s firm desire to make Iran an atomic power, is provided by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’s 1976 budget which amounted to $1.3 billion. This was the country’s largest state-owned financial institution after the oil industry and the following year it employed over 1,500 people trained by nuclear experts who travelled to Iran from all over the world. So, while the Shah used slogans to announce that before the Nineties he would have 23 nuclear reactors as well as the atom bomb, “sooner than anyone thinks,” in 1974 after a number of initial reservations, the United States also started to do business to encourage the Persian nuclear programme. Furthermore, according to a report published in 2003 by the New York Times, at the end of the Seventies Iran and Israel discussed a project involving the adaptation of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles for nuclear weapons. These were plans, according to documents discovered in Teheran after 1979, which were kept hidden from the West. Paradoxically, therefore, it seems that if Iran has not yet equipped itself with nuclear weapons today, it is not because of western powers, but because of the Islamic Revolution that deposed the Shah and upsetting the balance of power in the area.

Reza Pahlavi, an exceptional testimonial

Also in 1974, in a telegram from the State Department, cooperation between Washington and Iran in this sector was described as an alternative means for producing energy. In the meantime, a mission to Iran of American experts was prepared to assess forms of cooperation, followed by a visit by Dixy Ray, the expert at the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In all fairness, the Pentagon did express concern over the annual production of 23,000 watts deriving from plutonium (this was the Shah’s energy plan) and decided to sell reactors to Iran only after agreeing on special bilateral supervision, in addition to standard procedures, to assess the country’s stability due to fears these reactors could end up in the hands of dissidents or foreign terrorists. The lack of trust was therefore not linked to the Persian king, but rather to the external and internal players who came to power in 1979, placing the new Islamic Republic of Iran on the other side of the barricades. In 1975, Henry Kissinger and Iran’s Finance Minister Hushang Ansari signed an agreement for Iran to buy from the United States eight reactors worth $6.4 billion, while the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission would provide the fuel to run two 1,200 watt light water reactors, as well as an additional six for a total of 8,000 watts of power.

The excellent relations between the two countries was also apparent in one of the pro-nuclear campaigns in the United States that in those years chose the shah himself as a probably unknowing testimonial. “Guess who is building nuclear plants?”, reads a poster bearing a photograph of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. “The Shah of Iran,” it explains, “is sitting on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and yet he is building a second plant and has planned another two to provide his country with electricity. He would not do this if he doubted its safety.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons


4 risposte a “Iran and nuclear power before the revolution*

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