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Nuclear Power and Iran
Irans vision for itself is one in which the state has seen its future as predicated upon the use of nuclear power. Iran has repeatedly downplayed reports that it intends to pursue enrichment for the purposes of building nuclear weapons. Its history has shown that it is willing to open its doors to IAEA inspectionbut at the same time its leaders have argued that they want to be treated fairly and without discrimination. Irans leaders have pointed to the fact that other states in the Middle East have nuclear weapons but are not held to the same standards to which the West (particularly the US) holds Iran. Irans relationship with other Middle Eastern states is based on Irans perception as being unique in the Middle East.
Why Iran Has Pursued Nuclear Power
As soon as nuclear energy became a possibility, nations around the world were eager to develop itand Iran has been no different. Beginning in 1957, Iran joined Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace program to research and develop atomic energy (Bruno, 2010). A decade later, Iran had its first nuclear research center in Tehran and nuclear reactor. However, in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran agreed to submit to inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that nuclear energy was used for energy power and not for weapons manufacturing (Squassoni, 2006). In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran promoted nuclear energy independence and sought to have more than twenty nuclear power plants by the end of the century (Squassoni, 2006). The aim once more was energy, not weapons production. Numerous countries in the West did business with Iran as a result. The US, under the Ford Administration, provided a facility for extracting plutonium (Linzer, 2005). In the eyes of the US, the plan would allow Iran to provide energy through nuclear plants and thus allow oil to be exported for other purposes. However, fears of Iran using nuclear energy for armament purposes began to grow following a CIA report in 1974 warning that Iran would likely develop nuclear weapons if other countries around the world did the same (CIA, 1974). Five years later, a coup would erupt in Iran and international support for the countrys nuclear development would effectively be halted dead in its tracks.
The Iranian Revolution marked a distinct shift in Irans orientation to the West. The Shah of Iran had had a very friendly relationship with the US. The rise of the Islamic Revolution under the Ayatollah changed that dynamic considerably. The Shah was removed and Irans view of the US became problematic, from an American point of view. The US put pressure on other companies to cut ties with Iran and pressured the IAEA to do so as well (Hibbs, 2003). Iran used this pressure from the US as justification for its argument that it should continue to pursue nuclear power since it could not trust on obtaining energy or support from other countries. By the mid-1980s, Germany and the US were declaring that the Islamic Republic of Iran would soon have nuclear weapons with which to endanger the world (Seliktar & Rezaei, 2018).
Thus, as Iran forged ahead as an Islamic Republic, no longer under the thumb of Western nations, it pursued nuclear energy in a way that the Western nations and others, such as Israel, viewed as a threat. Even among other Middle East states, Irans nuclear reactors have been targeted: in the Iran-Iraq War, Irans reactors were struck by Iraqi jets firing French missiles (IAEA, 1984). It was during that war that Iran began to consider developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent, as Iranian ex-president Rafsanjani stated: When we first began, we were at war and we sought to have that possibility for the day that the enemy might use a
That was the thinking. But it never became real (Wilkins, 2015). The war between Iran and Iraq lasted 8 years, and Iraq, which was viewed as the aggressor in the war, did have nuclear capabilities (Wilkins, 2015). Up to that point, Iran had pursued nuclear power for peaceful purposes only; but in the face of an aggressive action by a hostile neighbor with the potential for nuclear weapons, Iran began to consider that it too should have the potential to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
In the early 2000s, the IAEA reported that Iran had not been reporting its nuclear development activities (IAEA, 2003). For its part, Iran continued to insist that its nuclear production activities were entirely peaceful (Zarif, 2006). H.E. Zarif (2006) stated that Iran is often penalized by the West even though it has never attacked a UN member state; has categorically rejectedfor ideological reasonsthe development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons; has made promises never to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; has always submitted to IAEA standards; has repeatedly permitted IAEA inspection; and even went so far as to suspend lawful enrichment activities just to build good will with the Westall to no avail.
Today, Iran has firmly insisted that it has no intention of stopping its enrichment program. On the contrary, it is aiming to increase enrichment, in the face of renewed hostility in the Middle East, as the BBC (2021) reports: Iran will produce 60%-enriched uranium in retaliation for a suspected Israeli attack on a nuclear site, President Hassan Rouhani says, bringing it closer to the purity required for a weapon. Recent attacks on Irans infrastructure have caused it to adopt a defense posture in terms of tone and purpose. For that reason, it may continue to push forward with enrichment, returning to a policy of developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent like what the state considered in the 1980s during its war with Iraq. IfIran and Israel do engage in a hot war, Iran might put its ideological reasons for holding to the non-proliferation platform; it might become a state in possession of nuclear weaponslike Pakistan or Israel.
From the beginning, Irans pursuit of nuclear power has generally been viewed as peaceful; it was only after a CIA warning and the Islamic Revolution that Irans relationship with the West deteriorated and the West began to insist that Iran have no nuclear powers at all. Iran has routinely tried to show that its intentions are peacefulbut when it is attacked it does make the threat that it may develop nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.
How Iranian Political Leaders Calculate Irans Uniqueness in the Middle East
Irans view is that it is at odds with the Western world vis–vis self-determination. It looks at Israel as the Middle East state that is permitted to do whatever it wants, including developing nuclear weapons, while itself is denied even the right to have peaceful nuclear energy. Under the Obama Administration, some progress was made in terms of Iran being given more acceptable terms for developing nuclear power; however, under the Trump Administration those terms were essentially revoked and tougher sanctions were placed on Iran to deter its activities in that regard. With the current Biden Administration it is unclear what direction negotiations may take between the West and Iran.
In the meantime, Iran has curried favor with Russia, China, Syria and Turkey. It is not as isolated in the Middle East as it once was. Yaphe (2010) claims for instance that Irans leaders use Western opposition to the countrys nuclear program to validate their quest for international legitimacy and to generate domestic national unity (p. 1). At the same time, Irans internal politics have become increasingly chaotic and destabilizing. Its relationship with other states in the Middle East has taken an obtuse calculus that causes other states to take alarm and to see a need to bolster their own security in what they view as a lack of clarity on Irans part (Yaphe, 2010).
Yet Iran sees itself as having the longest history of all states in the Middle East, dating back to the Persian Empire, thousands of years ago. It views Israel as an upstart state that is largely supported by the US government. It has expressed suspicion of the IAEA and its autonomy, which…
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