The Long, Strange History Of The U.S., The Atom And Iran

The Long, Strange History Of The U.S., The Atom And Iran

7:54am Sep 21, 2015

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We're about to hear the story of America, the atom and Iran.


It is the story of an historic nuclear agreement, a story we might think we know. After all, it's been debated inside and outside Congress for months.

MONTAGNE: But when you hear the story from the beginning, it becomes clear that we not have known this story at all. Our colleague Steve Inskeep explored that history as part of an NPR News special broadcast on the Iran deal.


The story goes that many phases and many decades.

ALI VAEZ: The Iranian nuclear program has deep roots. In fact, it is four years older than President Obama.

INSKEEP: Ali Vaez helped us to unspool that story. He's an analyst with the International Crisis Group. He also grew up in Iran, which means the nuclear program is a personal story for him.

VAEZ: It started in 1957, and ironically the U.S. provided Iran with its first research reactor, and nuclear reactor - a five-megawatt nuclear reactor that is still functioning and still operational in Tehran.

INSKEEP: You're hearing correctly. The United States made a deal with Iran and eventually built a nuclear reactor on the campus of Tehran University.

VAEZ: The U.S. also provided Iran with fuel for that reactor, which at the time was weapons-grade enriched uranium.

INSKEEP: Seemed like a good idea at the time. It was part of a program called Atoms for Peace.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sixteen hundred scientists from over 70 countries gathered in Geneva to discuss the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the...

VAEZ: Atoms for Peace program was basically an initiative by President Eisenhower to provide countries with peaceful civilian nuclear technology so that they won't pursue military nuclear programs.

INSKEEP: The beneficiaries included Iran's U.S.-backed king, Shah Reza Pahlavi. To be sure, many countries received what Iran did - their own small reactors, their own dollops of fuel.

VAEZ: It was only in Iran, as a result of the oil boom of the 1970s, that the nuclear program morphed into a full-fledged civilian nuclear program.

INSKEEP: Oh, because the Iranians had the money to exploit the knowledge they were given?

VAEZ: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And also money to develop scientific minds.

VAEZ: Iran provided the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, with a $20 million endowment in the 1970s to train Iranian nuclear scientists.

INSKEEP: The trainees have been central to Iran's nuclear program ever since. There was a moment when U.S. officials thought they might be making a mistake. It came in the 1970s. They feared Iran would become one of the nations then seeking nuclear weapons. U.S. diplomats began negotiating to limit Iran's nuclear program. And they discovered a problem still familiar to diplomats today. Iran insisted it had the same right to nuclear power as any nation.

VAEZ: It's actually quite interesting that the shah famously said that unless it was clear that Iran was not being treated as a second-class country, he would look for alternative vendors and he will not work with U.S. companies to acquire nuclear technology for Iran.

INSKEEP: Iran bought nuclear plants from West Germany and from France. The U.S.-built research reactor at Tehran University kept working. And then Tehran University became famous for something else.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: Chants, like this one. The shah was overthrown in 1979. Under the new Islamist government, thousands of people gathered at Tehran University each Friday. They angled their prayer mats toward Mecca. And at these prayers, Friday after Friday for decades, they have chanted death to America.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: What did the clerics, the Ayatollah Khomeini and others think about their nuclear infrastructure and do with their nuclear infrastructure once they gained control after 1979?

VAEZ: In many ways, Iran's nuclear program encapsulates Iran's struggle with modernity. During the shah's time, it was the symbol of the country's march towards modernity. After the revolution, it came to symbolize the kind of rapid modernization that was riddled with corruption and West-toxification.

INSKEEP: West-toxification - pernicious Western influence.

VAEZ: Ayatollah Khomeini famously said that the unfinished nuclear power plants in Bushehr should be used as silos to store wheat.

INSKEEP: Were they?

VAEZ: No, they were abandoned as a costly Western imposition on an oil-rich nation.

INSKEEP: An attitude that lasted well into the 1980s. By then, Iran was fighting a brutal war against Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-supported ruler of neighboring Iraq. The country also faced power shortages.

VAEZ: I was growing up in Iran at the time, and I remember very frequent blackouts that one would experience on a daily basis. So it's not 100 percent clear which motivation was more important for the Iranians to resurrect the program. Was it for the program to serve as a deterrent against future attacks, or was it because of the country's dire electricity needs at that time?

INSKEEP: Israel soon began warning that Iran was making dangerous nuclear progress. American concerns intensified in the years after the 9/11 attacks.


GEORGE W. BUSH: The message to the Iranian people is, is that your government is going to cause you deprivation.

INSKEEP: President George W. Bush delivered that message in a 2007 talk with NPR News. He said the United States would intensify economic sanctions.


BUSH: If your government continues to insist upon a nuclear weapon, there will be lost opportunity for the Iranian people. They won't be able to realize their full potential.

INSKEEP: Iran denied that it wanted a nuclear weapon. And in the early 2000s, Iran did offer to discuss the subject. It even reached a deal with European powers. But the United States did not sign on, and the efforts fell apart. Iran began building thousands of centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium. Ali Vaez says the meaning of Iran's nuclear program was changing again. Iran had called the program a symbol of the corrupt West, but now made it a symbol of Iran's defiance.

VAEZ: And this was really a new narrative, and it was around this narrative that a new sense of nationalism was created.

INSKEEP: A new Iranian president won office in 2005. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a populist leader. He questioned the Holocaust and defied President Bush. He sat down with NPR News in 2008.


INSKEEP: Does your country, does your government that you represent, have any proposal that it can make that would reassure the world when it comes to uranium?

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through interpreter) Again, it's not the world people who are concerned; it's the American government that's concerned.

INSKEEP: I take it that's no. You're not interested in...

AHMADINEJAD: (Through interpreter) Of course, we do have a proposal, and that's to advance law for everyone.

INSKEEP: Just as under the shah decades before, Iran insisted it had a right to a nuclear program. Ahmadinejad persisted even as his people grew restive. We saw signs of that in early 2009. We were in Tehran, and we met a customer in a real estate office.


BIMANI TAHKHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Bimani Tahkhani says she lives with her son. "We can manage," she says, and leaves the office. Then several minutes later, she bursts back in the door. She sits in front of the microphone and prepares to say what she really thinks.

TAHKHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Greetings to the people of America," she declares, "especially to your new president." And then she tells her story.

TAHKHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Having greeted the freshly inaugurated President Obama, she said the economy was terrible and that those who claimed otherwise were liars. Iranian discontent was soon repressed. Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a disputed vote. President Obama's early efforts in a nuclear deal failed. intensified sanctions, and we found more discontent in Iran by 2013. We visited Tehran's central bazaar as another election loomed.


INSKEEP: Are you going to vote?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "Where have you been the last four years," a woman replied, saying she hasn't voted since the protests in 2009. Then yet another woman said her husband was a disabled veteran of Iran's war against Iraq in the 1980s.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: And she brought up the disputed 2009 election. "My son was a protester," she said. "He was arrested and tortured."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Days later, the Iranian people elected a new president. Hassan Rouhani pledged to improve relations with the world, and the clerics who hold ultimate power allowed nuclear negotiations. Iran's new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, argued that a deal was possible if Iran was allowed some level of enriching uranium.


JAVAD ZARIF: If you say that Iran should abandon its enrichment program - you cannot abandon science. You cannot abandon technology. We have learned this. So the best way is to make sure that this technology is used in a transparent fashion for a peaceful program.

INSKEEP: An argument the Obama administration essentially accepted. So this was the emerging deal. Iran's nuclear activity would be limited. Inspections would verify this, and economic sanctions would be lifted. The ground was laid for a historic agreement. Those who watched what happened next include the American journalist Robin Wright.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Getting the deal was difficult. Winning acceptance in Congress was harder. But we've seen the easier parts. The next 10, 15, 25 years are going to be very difficult.

INSKEEP: The deal was a milestone in a story that has lasted more than half a century and isn't over. Tomorrow we hear two plausible scenarios for what happens next.

MONTAGNE: Our colleague, Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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