Ali Vaez, Karim Sadjadpour (via Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
One of the first debates among the revolutionaries who overthrew the shah was about the legacy of the ancien régime. The royal heritage included the nuclear program, deemed by the revolutionaries as a costly Western imposition on an oil-rich nation. Yet, antinuclear rhetoric was not purely ideological. A pragmatic cost-benefit analysis indicated that while a gas-fired power plant would cost $300/kilowatt in Iran, the predicted costs of Bushehr would be between $2,500 and $3,000/kilowatt. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1979 nuclear incident at Three Mile Island in the United States, safety concerns about the nuclear installations in Iran preoccupied the new authorities. Other arguments against the program included Iran’s limited uranium resources, earthquake-prone terrain, and lack of expertise.
The death knell for Iran’s nuclear program was Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement that the unfinished plants in Bushehr would be used as “silos to store wheat.” In July 1979, construction of all nuclear power plants came to a halt. The transitional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan abandoned all of the existing nuclear contracts. But the decision was not cost free.
In retaliation and against the backdrop of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Western countries refused to deliver machinery Iran had already purchased at a hefty price. The United States—whose diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran for 444 days—ceased supplying highly enriched uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which was forced to temporarily shut down. The halt of nuclear plant construction led to an exodus of Iranian nuclear scientists.
The Kraftwerk Union also terminated its Bushehr contract, but Iran had already sunk $5.5 billion deutsche marks (nearly $2.8 billion in 1979 dollars and $9.6 billion in 2012 dollars) into the project. A bitter legal dispute ensued in several international courts. Based on a 1982 International Chamber of Commerce ruling, the German companies had to deliver some 80,000 pieces of equipment, but Iran’s efforts to obtain compensation for unfinished reactors and paid nuclear fuel came to naught. A German offer to provide Iran with modern gas-fired power plants to settle the $5.4 billion claim also fell on deaf ears.
Lawsuits with the French over Eurodif were eventually settled in 1991; Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its original 1974 loan plus interest.To date, Iran is still listed as an indirect stockholder of Eurodif but under the 1991 settlement has no right to enriched uranium from the facility. This experience soured prospects of any future joint ownership of foreign facilities for Iran.
In September 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded an Iran still in the throes of post-revolutionary chaos. What would become an eight-year war severely damaged Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In retaliation for Iran’s failed raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Iraqi air forces attacked the Bushehr power plant seven times during the war, leaving the plant in ruins. According to estimates by engineers from both Siemens and Technischer Überwachungsverein, the repair bill for the damages and environmental exposure of the two reactors in Bushehr ranged between $2.9 and $4.6 billion.
By the mid-1980s, as revolutionary fervor in Iran began to subside while the country was still in a full-blown war with Iraq, Tehran’s leaders began to reconsider their nuclear program as a deterrence option. Iranian leaders felt isolated—a calculus that was exacerbated by the fact that Saddam Hussein was abetted by great powers with sophisticated weapons and (courtesy of the United States) crucial intelligence to locate Iranian military targets. Moreover, the drain of war had pushed the country into a severe energy crisis, evidenced by frequent blackouts.
It was against this backdrop that Iran’s nuclear program, dormant since 1979, was resurrected. A nuclear program could potentially alleviate Iran’s dire electricity needs and serve as a deterrent against the Islamic regime’s foreign foes. In 1984, then President Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, obtained authorization from Ayatollah Khomeini to restart the nuclear program and allocated funds for the effort in the national budget.
Facing unprecedented international isolation, the Iranian government searched in vain for a partner to complete the Bushehr project, but due to U.S. opposition all efforts came to naught. Only one man provided Tehran with a promising response—the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan. He visited Bushehr twice, in February 1986 and January 1987. But soon it became clear that the completion of Bushehr was beyond A.Q. Khan’s ability. Tehran grew convinced that the only option available to it was self-sufficiency.
Their first step was to acquire nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities. A.Q. Khan had already offered assistance by providing enrichment technology to Iran. With the endorsement of the then prime minister, Mir Hossein Moussavi (who was put under house arrest, accused of “sedition,” in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed presidential election), a deal was struck between the representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and A.Q. Khan’s illicit nuclear network. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was thus born in secret through the acquisition of technical drawings, manufacturing instructions, and samples of components for P-1 centrifuges (a 1970s Dutch design stolen by A.Q. Khan).
With design information in hand, Iran started a wide-ranging procurement effort to obtain critical parts for building centrifuge cascades. For example, in 1988 the Iranian front company Kavosh Yar, a subsidiary of the Atomic Energy Organization, acquired centrifuge components and vacuum valves from the German company Leybold worth $500,000. In 1995, Iran revisited A.Q. Khan’s “nuclear Walmart” and bought parts and designs for the more advanced P-2 centrifuge.
Iran also sought to upgrade the Tehran Research Reactor, the renovation of which had been pending since the shah’s era. In 1987, while renovating the reactor’s core, Argentina’s Applied Research Institute converted the reactor’s fuel from weapons-grade 93 percent enriched uranium to slightly less than 20 percent. The cost was $5.5 million. Argentina’s Nuclear Energy Commission also signed an agreement to supply 115.8 kilograms of the Tehran reactor’s required 19.75 percent enriched uranium, which was eventually delivered in 1993.
By the mid-1990s, the nuclear program had once again become a national priority with more than $800 million allocated to it in the national budget.The nuclear technology center located in the city of Isfahan, south of Tehran, was inaugurated in 1990 and with it a wide-ranging quest to find additional nuclear partners. Despite generous offers from Iran, the government of Pakistan remained reluctant to share its nuclear know-how with its neighbor. But China was interested. Beijing conducted nuclear trade worth $60 million annually with Tehran, turning China into Iran’s primary nuclear partner. In 1991, Tehran secretly imported approximately one ton of uranium hexafluoride from China but failed to report the purchase to the IAEA, a requirement under its NPT safeguards agreement.
U.S. pressure brought the Sino-Iranian cooperation to an end—another wakeup call that Iran would have to rely on native expertise. Thus began a renewed effort to bring Iran’s migrated nuclear talents back home and to train new experts. A group of 77 Iranian nuclear scientists were sent to study at Italy’s International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, which was saved from financial crisis by a $3 million loan from Iran.
Finally, a cash-strapped Russia took on the task of completing the Bushehr nuclear plant in 1992. Moscow’s impetus for entering the Iranian market was above all to rescue its post-Soviet nuclear industry from insolvency. A turnkey agreement was signed between the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and AtomStroyExport, a subsidiary of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency. Moscow was to supply a 915 MWe VVER-1000 light-water reactor, which is suitable for power generation and not prone to proliferation. Tehran, in turn, agreed to pay 80 percent of the value of the contract in cash and the remaining 20 percent in kind. On the ruins of the crippled reactor, the Russians planned to build a sui generis nuclear plant—cobbled together with residual German equipment and scrambled Russian technology.
From the outset, the project was plagued with problems. The design of the Russian VVER reactor was incompatible with the German foundations of the Bushehr plant. It cost Iran an additional $140 million to solve the problem. Due to American objections, Moscow also backed off from constructing a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment facility in Iran and instead agreed to supply the reactor’s nuclear fuel for a ten-year period with a price tag of $300 million.After a sixteen-year hiatus, the Bushehr reactor was once again a construction site. The initial completion date was set for 2001, but the estimate would prove off by more than a decade. But since construction began, between 250 to 3,000 engineers and technicians from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries have been working in Iran, reportedly earning $5,000 to $20,000 per month.
From 1992 to 2002, Iran made steady progress toward an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. Enrichment experiments were secretly conducted, contrary to Iran’s NPT safeguards obligations, on test centrifuges in a research and development facility installed at Kalaye Electric Company. Another vast clandestine enrichment facility was built underground near the city of Natanz. Buried under 25 feet of cement and concrete, construction of the gas centrifuge facility at one point consumed all of the cement produced in Iran. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had also started to secretly construct a heavy-water production plant and a 40 MW research reactor near Arak.
In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance (a front for the Mojaheden-e Khalq, a militant Marxist-Islamist cult that helped topple the shah and now calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic), revealed information about Iran’s undeclared nuclear enrichment facilities in Natanz and heavy-water production plant in Arak. The revelation ignited an international crisis.
Between 2003 and 2005—against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—France, Germany, and Britain (the EU-3) led a diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear crisis. Iran, sobered by the fact that the United States had just defeated an Iraqi army in three weeks that they had fought to a standstill over eight years, initially agreed to suspend its enrichment program. It also voluntarily implemented the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which allows for more intrusive inspections, for more than two years. But as the situation in Iraq began to deteriorate, turning in Iran’s favor, oil prices began to soar, and the EU-3 failed to bridge the gap between Iran and the United States, Tehran’s leaders grew emboldened enough to reject what they believed to be the West’s underlying objective: to get them to permanently give up their right to enrich uranium. On August 8, 2005, in the final days of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, Iran restarted uranium conversion at its Isfahan facility.
With the election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran adopted a harsher stance in negotiations. Eventually, in January 2006, it broke the IAEA seals and restarted uranium enrichment. On February 4, 2006, the IAEA’s Board of Governors voted to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for its noncompliance with its NPT safeguards agreement obligations. On July 31, 2006, Security Council Resolution 1696 was issued by unanimous vote, calling on Iran to stop uranium enrichment efforts within one month.
Tehran continued to insist on its “inalienable right” to pursue uranium enrichment on its soil. Consequently, on December 23, 2006, the Security Council passed Resolution 1737, imposing international sanctions on Iran. This was the beginning of a mutual cycle of escalation. A third Security Council Resolution (1747) was adopted in March 2007. Several weeks later, Iran announced that it had reached industrial-scale uranium enrichment capabilities with the installation of 3,000 centrifuges in Natanz.
Amid growing concerns about the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, an unexpected U.S. National Intelligence Estimate was released in 2007, stating that Tehran had halted its structured nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report cooled temperatures, providing space for Iran and the IAEA to work on a “modality plan” for resolving outstanding issues within a year, and by February 2008, the IAEA closed the file on most of those issues.
But new evidence surfaced from a stolen laptop that allegedly contained information about Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. The incident soured relations between Tehran and the IAEA and resulted in a four-year-long stalemate in talks about Iran’s pre-2003 activities. In March 2008, Security Council Resolution 1803 was passed, imposing further economic sanctions on Iran. The United States and its allies also started levying increasingly burdensome individual sanctions against Tehran.
Click here for the full report.
Click here for Ali Vaez's article "Iran Sanctions: Which way out?"
Click here for Karim Sadjadpour's chapter on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.