Iran’s desire to invest in a nuclear program dates back to the 1950s, when the country’s autocratic ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, or the Shah of Iran, signed a treaty with the US in which Washington would help Tehran to build its nuclear program. As the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah’s regime in the 1970 and Iran broke away from America’s ambit, fast turning from a friend to foe, its nuclear ambitions became the cause of major concern for Washington.
Tehran gave strong indications that it will not abide by the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran insists that it is no longer bound by the limits imposed on the number or types of centrifuges it can operate or the level of enrichment of uranium it can pursue.
US also helped Iran to develop its first nuclear reactor, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), and supplied enriched uranium to fuel the plant. Iran was also provided with ‘hot cells’ by the US, which are critical for the production of plutonium, an essential ingredient for developing nuclear weapons.
While Tehran operates several research reactors, the TRR is still the largest one with a five megawatt-thermal (MWth), pool-type light water research reactor. Under Eisenhower’s program, Israel, India and Pakistan received the same technology, such as small reactors and their own dollops of fuel. However, following the oil boom in the 1970s, Iran’s nuclear program was converted into a fully-fledged civilian nuclear program.
By the early 1990s, Iran’s quest for acquiring nuclear weapons came close to completion as the TRR began conducting laboratory-scale plutonium-reprocessing experiments, allegedly violating the nuclear safeguards failures according to the IAEA. By 2003, Iran acknowledged that it had used the TRR to produce small amounts of polonium-210 – a well-known radioactive material used in a neutron initiator that starts the chain reaction in a nuclear weapon.
However, Iran maintained that the polonium was produced as part of a study to support thermoelectric generators and meet its energy needs and not for building weapons. After years of trading allegations, the US and Iran finally found a way to sort out differences over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Tehran agreeing to put a cap on uranium enrichment and reversing all the gains it had made to transition an energy-oriented program into a military one.