The Development of Iran's Nuclear Program

Dean Poplawski
February 18, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

Early Development

Fig. 1: An image of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in Iran. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Iranian nuclear program initially began in 1959. It came as a result of Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace Program" which included the US giving a small nuclear reactor to Tehran University. [1] It was not until the early to mid 1970's that the Iranian nuclear program began to gain any ground, but that progress quickly came to a halt in 1979 when the program was put on hold by Shah Pahlavi in light of internal chaos brought upon by the Iranian Revolution. With the coming of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranian leadership officially abandoned its nuclear program. [1,2]

The Return of Iran's Nuclear Program

In 2002, the discovery of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility sparked the "public" return of Iran's nuclear program. [1] These gas centrifuge-based uranium enrichment facilities, "enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope." [3] However, the Natanz facility had been kept secret for some time before being discovered in 2002 causing much controversy, as it had not been inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and also made it far more likely that the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was a occurring in Iran. As of August of 2012, it was believed that Iran's stockpile of LEU contained up to 5% U-235, which has the potential to yield enough HEU for multiple nuclear weapons if it was further enriched. [3]

Present and Future Concerns

Today, Iran claims that its nuclear program has the sole purpose of generating electricity although many are skeptical. Iran continues to enrich uranium, utilize its heavy-water reactor, install centrifuges, and conduct research making them a clear concern for the IAEA, as well as many other countries such as the United States and Israel. [3] Some more partial individuals such as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are more certain of Iran's nuclear proliferation. He asserts that Iran's nuclear program is far more aggressive then they claim. Prime Minister Netanyahu insists that Iran could convert their stockpile of uranium into enough higher-grade uranium that would supply for around five nuclear bombs. He demands the disassembling of both the centrifuges and plutonium reactor, and if they do not comply, then to increase sanctions on their nuclear program as it has reached a threatening point to the people of Israel and the rest of the world. [4]

While these concerns are not necessarily unfounded, it is not certain whether Iran has used its nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons or not. However, over the last decade, it is clear that they have kept their options open to develop nuclear weapons if they choose to.

© Dean Poplawski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Milani, " The Shah's Atomic Dream," Foreign Policy, 29 Dec 10.

[2] D. Perret, "Trajectory of the Iranian Nuclear Program," Physics 241, Stanford Univesity, Winter 2013.

[3] P. K. Kerr, "Iran's Nuclear Program: Status," Congressional Research Service, RL34544, 17 Oct 12.

[4] H. Keinon and M. Wilner, "Netanyahu: Iran Has Enough Low-Grade Uranium for 5 Nuclear Bombs," Jerusalem Post, 19 Nov, 2013.