“The Father of Iran’s Nuclear Programme”

by Peter Jenkins

Last week the BBC’s “Today” programme carried an interview with Dr. Akbar Etemad, who was in charge of Iran’s fledgling nuclear program between 1974 and 1978 and who has lived outside Iran since the Revolution.

Dr. Etemad spoke frankly of the instructions he received from Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, a valued ally of the West. Dr. Etemad’s mission was “to go for all the technologies imaginable in the field of nuclear technology”.

The Shah wanted Iran to be capable of meeting a large proportion of its electricity needs without running down oil and gas reserves that were better used to earn foreign exchange.

He also wanted Iran to have a nuclear weapons option, to become capable of making nuclear devices should he perceive a need for them. Dr. Etemad is frank about this: “The Shah had the idea at the time that he’s strong enough in the region and he can defend our interests in the region [and] he didn’t want nuclear weapons. But he told me that if this changes we would have to ‘go for nuclear’. He had that in mind.”

What’s striking about this summary of the Shah’s thinking is the close resemblance it bears to post-2006 US national intelligence estimates (NIEs) of the Islamic Republic’s intentions. “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” was the opening sentence of a 2007 NIE. A month ago the opening sentence of the Iran and North Korea section of a Worldwide Threat Assessment read: “We assess Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige and regional influence and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so.”

This kind of continuity of intent should come as no surprise. History abounds with examples of revolutionary regimes that soon adopted many of the external goals of the regimes they had overthrown.

It does not follow logically from this resemblance that the NIEs must be right. But the resemblance boosts the probability that they are right.

Dr. Etemad also gives us a clue as to what is likely to be the Islamic Republic’s fundamental motive in seeking the “threshold” capability sought by the Shah. The Shah wanted a capability on which he could fall back if he no longer felt able to defend Iran’s interests by conventional means. The key word in that sentence is “defend”; it is a word that is usually seen as devoid of aggressive connotations.

Dr. Etemad also implies that the Shah saw no inconsistency between the aspiration for a threshold capability and Iran’s international obligations. The Shah was fully aware of what the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), negotiated under his authority in 1967-68, required of Iran. He would have been loath to jeopardise his strategic Cold War relationship with the US and his close relationships with the UK, France, and Germany by violating those obligations.

The Shah will have known that Article X of the NPT reads: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country”.

This provision is naturally interpreted as meaning that if a Party feels threatened by another state which is nuclear-armed, it may withdraw in order to defend itself by acquiring nuclear weapons. It implies, on this reading, that as well as having a right to withdraw, Parties have a right to attain a threshold from which they can acquire the means to defend themselves before the threat to their supreme interests materialises.

One final point of particular interest in Dr. Etemad’s historical testimony is his reference to US pressure on him to refrain from developing dual-use nuclear technologies such as uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. “The Americans” told him, he says, that “Iran is not a problem for us but the conditions we impose on Iran are those that we want to impose on other countries”.

That can be interpreted as meaning that as long as the Shah was on his throne, the US would have been relaxed about Iran acquiring the dual-use technologies that underpin a threshold capability but for the fact that this would constitute a precedent. We still hear echoes of the precedent argument now in reference to the Islamic Republic’s programme.

However, the global nuclear landscape has changed since 1975. All but nine states that are nuclear-armed have made an NPT vow not to acquire nuclear weapons. Many of these states have made the same pledge to their regional partners in nuclear-weapon-free zone arrangements. Punishing Iran for acquiring a threshold capability is not the only means available to the US for discouraging the spread of dual-use technologies. It was only the British who used to hang an admiral “to encourage the others”.

Photo: U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran pose in December 1959 at the Marble Palace in Tehran, Iran. 

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.