Nearly 10 months since President Biden was inaugurated, and three months after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi assumed office, Washington and Tehran are nowhere near reaching an accord over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. There are many reasons for this failure. But one in particular is routinely underappreciated in the United States: what a fundamental matter of principle the nuclear program is for most Iranians.
“We should never have signed it,” said Akbar Etemad, the founder of Iran’s nuclear program, in 2009. “It was not a fair treaty. I never would have allowed it.”
But Etemad was not referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — commonly referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal” — as one might expect. Instead, the “it” was the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Significantly, like thousands of Iranians who fled their country around the time of the 1979 revolution, Etemad nurses a vigorous dislike of the Islamic Republic that came into power that year — and a staunch loyalty to the pro-Western monarchy that it overthrew. However, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, he directs surprisingly little of his frustration at the ruling ayatollahs. Instead, Etemad blames his former boss, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for signing the NPT — and the Western powers for keeping Iran subjugated ever since.
He is not the only one. Other former aides and officials from the Shah’s government — who regularly condemn and vilify the country’s current rulers — have expressed their begrudging respect for how Iran has handled its nuclear disagreements with the United States and other powers. This curious unity among Iranians of such radically different political persuasions derives from the history of Iran’s nuclear program and helps explain why the country refuses to shutter its program despite Western sanctions and pressure.
Iran first joined the atomic age in 1957 when the Eisenhower administration — under a landmark U.S.-Iran Nuclear Cooperation Agreement — pledged to assist the country in developing nuclear technology for medical purposes — and offered six kilograms of low-enriched uranium for nuclear research. This, ironically, was just four years after Eisenhower had authorized the CIA to overthrow Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, for attempting to nationalize the country’s oil industry and move Iran in the direction of controlling its own energy destiny. For the Shah, the promotion of nuclear energy was an important demonstration of the country’s modernity — but also of the idea that a close alliance with the United States could pay significant dividends in Iran’s advancement.
In the years that followed, U.S.-Iran nuclear cooperation continued to flourish. In 1967, the Johnson administration expanded the previous agreement, supplying Iran with its first nuclear reactor and enough high-enriched uranium to keep it going. In 1971, the Shah announced that, with American help, Iran would build 23 nuclear power stations by the year 2000, and Iranian students began arriving in droves at MIT to study nuclear physics. (Many of them now hold high-level positions in Iran’s nuclear program). In 1976, the Ford administration offered Iran a reprocessing facility for plutonium extraction, in effect giving the Shah full mastery of the nuclear cycle. As late as 1978, a State Department memorandum noted: “We are hopeful that the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement will be finalized soon and that American companies will be able to play a role in Iran’s nuclear energy program.”
The 1979 revolution dashed such hopes.
Iran’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the nuclear program as a sin against Islam — precisely the kind of shiny Western object that the Shah had been overly enamored with and that the country now needed to move away from.
For the next decade, Iran’s nuclear program sat in mothballs. But after Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iran began to feel threatened by Saddam Hussein’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons in neighboring Iraq. That compelled the government of Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, to begin exploring the possibility of reviving the nuclear program.
But by this point, things had changed.
For one, the United States was now a bitter nemesis. And though Iran pursued what appeared to be a legal civilian nuclear program under the terms of the NPT, there were suspicions in Washington that the country was also secretly harboring a weapons program.
Iran protested that it was operating well within its rights. After all, despite the revolution and Khomeini’s opposition to nuclear energy, Iran had remained a member of the NPT. This meant that it was entitled to enrich uranium within certain safeguards and even had the right to expect cooperation from other nations as it developed nuclear technology for electricity generation and radioisotopes for medical purposes.
But Washington wasn’t having it. The United States pressured its allies not to cooperate with Iran, which only pushed the nuclear program underground — thus fueling further suspicion, and initiating a destructive cycle of suspicion and secrecy that continues to bedevil Iran’s relationship with the West.
The rest is more or less history. In 2003, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear program as a goodwill gesture to the European powers, who hoped to broker an agreement between Iran and the United States that would end the cycle of suspicion. But the George W. Bush administration took a hard line, demanding, for example, that Iran completely abandon its program. And Iran responded by returning to enriching uranium in 2005 simply out of defiance.
In the years since, the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy — Iran enriches uranium far beyond the point that it actually needs, and the United States undertakes erratic and inconsistent policies toward Iran’s nuclear program, many of which have simply widened the gap between the sides.
For Etemad and others like him, however, the problem is actually the NPT, and the entire framework of international regulations that it enforces. They assert this framework has held back scientific progress in Iran, while unfairly promoting the interests of the United States and the world’s other nuclear superpowers.
“Only small countries joined” in 1968, Etemad explains. “Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, the Fiji Islands. The countries that actually had a chance of getting nuclear power — India, Pakistan, Israel — they stayed out. Only we signed.” This may seem like ancient history, but Iranian leaders — as well as some of their most vigorous critics abroad — feel that, when it comes to the nuclear program, their country has been punished for following the rules-based international order, while other midsized countries have been rewarded for flouting it.
Indeed, the countries mentioned by Etemad have all developed nuclear weapons since 1968 without facing the harsh sanctions levied against Iran. Dozens of other signatories to the NPT have faced questions about their nuclear programs in the way Iran has — but without finding themselves subjected to harsh sanctions or bellicose rhetoric about regime change.
Seen from the perspective of Tehran, then, the only reason Iran’s nuclear program has produced so much controversy is because Iran operates within the framework of the NPT — which means that even the slightest question raised by international inspectors immediately gets escalated into a political crisis in the United States.
Iranians see the controversy over their nuclear program as a political issue — one born not out of Iranian misbehavior or violations of the international order, but of the enmity between their nation and the United States. The United States and its allies, both in Europe and the Middle East, have a very different take. They have legitimate concerns about a range of Iranian activities, including support for regional militias and domestic human rights issues, which help frame the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.
But the history helps explain why Iranians across the political spectrum support the nuclear program, despite the harsh sanctions imposed by the West. It also reveals that they have a legitimate complaint about the provisions of the NPT being enforced inconsistently, depending on a country’s relationship with the United States. Understanding this historical reality also helps explain why Iran probably will continue taking a hard line in negotiations with the Western powers, and why the best chance of limiting Iran’s nuclear program may, ironically, be accepting its existence.