What You Maybe Didn't Know About Iran's Nuclear Program

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Anyone with an interest in the international stand-off over Iran's nuclear program (and if you aren't, you ought to be), should read the Carnegie Endowment's latest paper by Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour.

For example, did you know some of the top "villains" of Iran's nuclear program got their first nuclear training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thanks to a U.S. push to encourage Iran to build nuclear reactors?

Or that by 1977 the Shah's nuclear effort had an annual budget of $11 billion in 2012 dollars, against the official annual budget of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency today of about $300 million?

Or that this program was the subject of an earlier dispute with the U.S. (including some sanctions) over guarantees that it wouldn't be used for weaponization?

Or that the Mullahs initially abandoned the Shah's nuclear program as uneconomical? They revived it after the Iran-Iraq war, led by none other than the then-president and now Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Or that the cost of the Iranian nuclear program to date is more than $100 billion and that the country's only nuclear power plant to date, at Bushehr, cost $11 billion to build -- about four times the international norm?

Or that the country's known uranium deposits would only supply Bushehr for nine years?

Or that if Iran were just to reduce to the regional average the proportion of natural gas that it wastes by flaring, it could feed enough gas-fired power plants with the rescued fuel to generate as much electricity as up to four 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors?

If your answer to the original question is anything like mine, it's "yeah, I kind-of knew that." What the Carnegie paper does is to package the whole story together to create context for the current dispute that's too often forgotten.

What's striking isn't just the economic catastrophe that this nuclear obsession has been for Iran, and how spurious the regime's claims are that it needs nuclear power as an energy security measure. It's also how big a priority this has been for Iranian policy makers for most of the last 50 years.

The obvious conclusion is that this will be very hard to end, probably impossible unless some deal is struck that lets the Iranians save face by securing the right to go on making uneconomical civilian grade fuel under intrusive supervision.

"Iran's nuclear program has deep roots. It cannot be 'ended' or 'bombed away.' It is entangled with too much pride -- however misguided -- and sunk costs," the authors conclude. They make a pretty convincing case.

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To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net