America's Role in Creating the Iran Nuclear Threat

Andrew Ziperski
March 16, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Though much of the debate around nuclear energy in recent years has focused on the rise of North Korea as a potential nuclear power, it is worthwhile to consider the presence of another threat to nuclear security around the globe, a threat that most people dont realize the Americans helped to create: Iran. Unlike the North Korean push towards nuclear weapons, which is relatively new, Iran's history extends back several decades. Following the end of World War II, Iranian leaders began financing the development of a nuclear energy program after recognizing the potential for nuclear power to usher in an era of energy independence. The United States, which had already proven in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the extent of its own nuclear abilities, aided the Iranian government in its quest through the Atoms for Peace initiative, which provided technology and educational resources for states wanting civilian nuclear programs. [1]

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who established the Atoms for Peace program, hoped that Iran would seek to only leverage nuclear power for benign reasons. But it has become clear that American aid has had unintended consequences: today, the Iranian government has made clear its intentions to develop a nuclear weapon, and unfortunately, history shows that the United States is partially to blame. [1]

American Technology in Iranian Hands

The Eisenhower administration supplied the Iranians with critical technology and education, and by the late 1950's, the United States had helped the Iranian government build research reactors that would further the Iranian nuclear cause. [2] Less than a decade later, the United States supplied the center with its first reactor, a five-megawatt pool-type light water research reactor; in addition, they provided nearly six kilograms of highly enriched uranium fuel (Uranium with a U-235 isotope concentration of greater than 20%). The reactor allowed the Iranian government to produce 600 grams of plutonium every year. [3]

In the years since, however, it has become clear to many around the world that Iran has used the technology granted to them for purposes that are not benign, particularly due to the theocracy's increasingly strained relationship with the West. Confidence in the Iranian regime has collapsed: people worry that although the government wants nuclear power for military, not civilian, purposes.

Where We Are Today

Following the Iranian Revolution, the United States cut off all aid to Iran; America's role in supplying materials, providing financing, and educating Iranian scientists came to an end.

Still, Iran has continued developing its uranium enrichment capabilities, building fuel a fuel enrichment plant in Natanz that so worried American leaders that President George W. Bush seriously considered a military strike against it. [3] In addition, inspectors uncovered a concealed plant at Fordow; Iranian assurances that this plant was merely a "pilot" one did nothing to assuage American concerns, considering that the Natanz plant had already been in existence. [3] In response to Iranian behavior, Western democracies and the United Nations have demanded that much of this activity be halted or considerably reduced; the outcry ultimately and ensuing negotiations led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially dubbed the "Iran Nuclear Deal." Fig. 1 shows an image of former US Secretary of State John Kerry sitting with Iranian negotiators in Tehran as they work to develop a plan agreeable to both sides.

Among other things, the JCPAO imposes strict restrictions on the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow; they can be used only to further civilian purposes and cannot enrichment uranium for military ends. Iran is limited in the number of centrifuges it can operate. And importantly, the International Atomic Energy Agency has the authority to inspect the country's nuclear facilities. [4] In return, the United States, European Union, and United Nations agreed to lift sanctions that had been imposed due to Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.


The United States initial aid to Iran in the 1950s was based on the belief that the Middle Eastern nation could harness nuclear power for good, that the Iranian government would only pursue its nuclear program to gain energy independence. Alas, as time has passed, this has not been the case. Though it remains to be seen whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will effectively prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring a fully functional nuclear weapon, we must hope that it will, because a nuclear Iran will be a U.U. foreign policy failure. One thing is clear: despite our initial beliefs regarding Iranian intentions, if we had the power to go back in time, we would not repeat the mistake of helping Iran finance and develop its nuclear program.

© Andrew Ziperski. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] M. Fuhrmann, Atomic Assistance: How "Atoms for Peace" Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity (Cornell University Press, 2012).

[2] M. Gaietta, The Trajectory of Iran's Nuclear Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[3] D. H. Joyner, Iran's Nuclear Program and International Law: From Confrontation to Accord (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[4] D. C. Jett, The Iran Nuclear Deal: Bombs, Bureaucrats, and Billionaires (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).