Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Guest Post: Iran’s Nuclear Program: The Unintended Consequences of Nuclear Exports

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
July 25, 2012

A general view of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, located under one thousand miles south of Tehran, Iran (Stringer Iran/Courtesy Reuters). A general view of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, located under one thousand miles south of Tehran, Iran (Stringer Iran/Courtesy Reuters).


Matthew Fuhrmann is assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University and a former Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity.

Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to many nations—particularly Israel and the United States. Yet, it is sometimes forgotten that Washington was an early supporter of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The United States provided peaceful nuclear assistance to Iran from 1957 to 1979, when the two states were allies. Washington exported the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), enriched uranium to fuel it, and “hot cells,” which can be used to produce plutonium—a critical ingredient for making nuclear weapons. All of this aid was provided for civilian uses, but it ended up indirectly augmenting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. For example, from 1988 to 1992 Iran conducted covert plutonium reprocessing experiments using fuel pellets irradiated in the TRR.

The Iranian experience exposes a problem known as the dual-use dilemma: because nuclear technology has both peaceful and military applications, nuclear energy aid provides a potential foundation for a bomb program.

However, this danger has not deterred the United States from providing nuclear energy assistance to many countries. Today, for instance, Washington is in the midst of negotiating agreements with Jordan and Vietnam that would permit the sharing of nuclear technology, materials, and know-how.

Deals such as these could be a recipe for the further spread of nuclear weapons.

In a new book, I explore the relationship between peaceful nuclear assistance and nuclear proliferation. Based on an analysis of global nuclear commerce from 1945 to 2000, I show that states are much more likely to covet (and successfully build) nuclear weapons when they accumulate atomic assistance—particularly if they experience an international crisis after receiving aid.

Iran is just one of several proliferators that benefited from nuclear energy assistance. India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 using plutonium that was produced in a Canadian-supplied civilian reactor. Iraq probably intended to use a French-supplied civilian facility known as “Osiraq” for military purposes before it was bombed by Israel in 1981. And scientists from North Korea and South Africa received training—from the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively—under the auspices of civilian nuclear cooperation that ultimately facilitated nuclear proliferation.

The international community has instituted a variety of measures—including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards— to limit the proliferation potential of peaceful nuclear aid. Yet, as Iran, Iraq, Libya, South Korea, and others have shown, motivated states can circumvent existing rules and regulations with relative ease.

Why, then, do countries provide peaceful nuclear assistance? Suppliers typically offer aid to “buy” cooperation from the recipient country. For example, the United States assisted Iran’s nuclear program to shore up its military alliance with Tehran and to influence Iranian policies on oil pricing. Nuclear exporters hope that they can reap the political and economic benefits of nuclear assistance without contributing to nuclear proliferation. Yet, in the long run, their gambles often backfire.

The United States and other suppliers should revise their nuclear trade policies to prevent history from repeating itself. Requiring customers to refrain from building indigenous uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing plants (these facilities can produce bomb-grade materials) after accumulating relevant knowledge through peaceful nuclear assistance would be a particularly fruitful policy. Washington has so far expressed little enthusiasm about applying this policy across the board. However, swift action is needed to help prevent future crises like the one that is ongoing in Iran.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by hass

    You completely overlook the fact that about 40 countries are today “nuclear capable” and yet have not made bombs,

    Furthermore there is zero evidence that Iran is interested in making bombs

    “The United States, European allies and even Israel generally agree on three things about Iran’s nuclear program: Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead.”

  • Posted by hass

    The NPT requires the Nuclear-Armed countries to share nuclear technology “to the fullest extent possible” and “without discrimination”. If the US wants to try to avoid that, it is violating the NPT. The Developing Nations have made it clear that they will not give up their right to enrichment repeatedly, and have explicitly backed Iran on this point.

  • Posted by Soraya Ulrich

    “Atoms for Peace” was a propaganda coup devised by the Eisenhower administration. C. D. Jackson and a young consultant from MIT named Walt Rostow saw the Soviet dictator’s demise as ‘the first really big propaganda opportunity offered to our side for a long time.’ He recommended a dramatic presidential appeal for peace as a first move. Soviet premiere, Georgi Malenkov, pre-empted any U.S. appeal with a peace offensive of his own. Eisenhower’s counter thrust came on 16 April in a speech developed by Rostow and Jackson entitled ‘The Chance for Peace.’ Seeking to contest Moscow’s hold on the vocabulary of ‘peace’. Eisenhower launched the first such campaign in a speech to the United Nations on 8 December 1953: its title was Atoms for Peace. Atoms for Peace began on 8 May 1953 when the NSC Planning Board’s ad hoc Committee on Armaments and American Policy delivered a secret report calling for ‘candor’ at home and overseas regarding the atomic arms race. The government needed U.S. public support for its nuclear arms expenditure. Soviets called the bluff. US did not think Soviets would join in. Either way, they thought they would be the winners. If the Soviets did not join the program, they would get a bad rap, if they joined, US would get its funding.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Why don’t you use the U.S. and Israel as examples?
    1. The U.S. and Israel have nukes.
    2. The Arabs who actually live in the Middle East fear the U.S. and Israel, which have nukes, and not Iran, which doesn’t , according to the polls.

    That puts the lie to this statement.
    “Iran’s nuclear program poses a threat to many nations.”

    Iran doesn’t threaten any nation — you made that up. It’s the U.S. and Israel which threaten other nations. Taken a look at Iraq or Afghanistan recently?

    This statement is also incorrect:
    “Iran is just one of several proliferators”

    Iran doesn’t have nukes so it can’t be, and isn’t, a proliferator.

    Also incorrect:
    “Iran. . . and others have shown, motivated states can circumvent existing rules and regulations with relative ease.”
    The IAEA has consistently reported that Iran is NPT-compliant.

    Also, withe regard to Iran, your whole premise is wrong.
    “Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity.”
    U.S. “nuclear insecurity” regarding Iran is entirely concocted and is really a problem of Middle East hegemony. Iran has it and the U.S. (with Israel) wants it. For example, the U.S. sanctions on Iran began long before tyhe concocted “nuclear crisis.”

  • Posted by Mike

    However , I believe that Us must revise its own nuclear depot as well .

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    –Washington is in the process of negotiating agreement (nuclear trade) with Jordan and Vietnam– Guest blogger.

    In plain words the West has been proliferating nuclear technology to the East and other parts of the Word. Then why only to blame other countries like Pakistan and North Korea and that too without authenticity.

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