HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Why does Iran Want Nuclear Technology?

Last week, we saw tensions between Israel and the US rise over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress (the speech will take place early next month) against international efforts to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear power program. The Israeli Prime Minister no doubt seeks to remind the world of his country’s staunch opposition to any such agreement over legitimate fears, fueled by years of Iranian threats and insults, of an Iran with nuclear weapons.

This kind of rhetoric has become commonplace in the decades-long standoff between international governments and Iran. Suffering from crippling economic sanctions for years, it seems counter intuitive for Iran to so fervently pursue the technology. So why does their government – one with substantial oil and gas energy reserves – insist on developing their country’s nuclear science, at the cost of their economy and relations with the rest of the world?

Key nuclear sites map

Map of Iranian nuclear facilities.

Cultural Importance

The program has a history that dates to before the Iranian revolution of 1979, beginning in the 1950s with cooperation from the United States, who also provided Iran with its first nuclear research reactor. The program enjoyed broad international interest, until the ousting of the Iranian Shah in 1979. Iranian interest in the subject dropped after the revolution, until after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), after which Saddam Hussein’s foray into nuclear weapons research prompted a similar movement in Iran. Subsequently, Iran openly pursued its nuclear energy goals. The cultural importance of such goals is summarized by the following passage from the United States Institute of Peace:

“The revival of the shah’s nuclear program was initially presented as necessary to diversify energy sources. Nuclear technology was equated as cutting edge for development and indispensable for any self-respecting power.”

Early on, the program was linked to a sense of national pride and touted as the way to establish Iran as a technological center in the Middle East. When sanctions began in 1996 over concerns about secret uranium enrichment, it was easy for the Iranian government to exploit this pride and make the issue personal: being the only nuclear capable/aspiring country in the region to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (albeit under a different regime), they could claim they were being singled out unjustly.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surveying the centrifuges at Iran’s underground complex at Natanz in March 2007

Conservative thought began to dominate Iranian politics more than ever with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and tension with the rest of the world peaked during his presidency, along with efforts to enrich weapons-grade nuclear fuel. He used the nuclear issue to polarize Iranian politics and strengthen his and his supporters’ positions midst a failing economy.

Defense Against Enemies; Suspicion of International Agencies

Another source of Iranian desire to obtain nuclear weapons, or at least substantial nuclear power sources, comes from its competition with surrounding states. Five of the world’s nine nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Israel, China, and Russia) lie in close proximity to Shia Iran; two of these – Israel and predominantly Sunni Pakistan – pose potential threats to the country. Israel, while never having openly declared its nuclear weapons arsenal, is believed to have developed one. It’s easy to understand Iran’s desire to match their strength, having for years called for the annihilation of Israel.

Additionally, Iran has become increasingly suspicious of and closed off from western countries and the UN. Since the turn of the millennium, they have seen attacks on key nuclear scientists, a joint US-Israeli cyber attack against their existing nuclear centrifuges, and increased covert surveillance by the US (see downed US spy drone). All of these incidents, whether justified or not (the Stuxnet virus was suspected to have delayed nuclear ambitions by, at most, a couple years) contribute to a more entrenched Iranian position on its nuclear program.

Finding a Solution Amid Mutual Suspicion and Antagonism

Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013, a moderate Iran has seemed more likely, and nuclear negotiations have progressed far more smoothly than ever before. Yet, as progress is made, the potential for the failure of international talks grows. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recently said, “he did not believe that sanctions would be lifted ‘even if the talks continue on the basis of what they [United States] dictate.'” At this point, Iran’s main motivation to cooperate is the lifting of international sanctions. Yet, periodic Republican-led efforts in Congress to impose additional sanctions seem designed only to sabotage that cooperation and staunch Israeli opposition makes any deal difficult to realize.

My goal when I began researching all of this was to better understand why Iran has such dedication to developing both nuclear power and weapons in spite of crippling sanctions and deteriorating relationships with other countries. It’s easy to listen to Israel and dismiss Iran as a hostile entity only intent on increasing its own regional power, yet this would ignore a decades long struggle to obtain/pursue what many see as the epitome of 20th century technology. Yet it would be equally naive to ignore Iran’s clear desire for a nuclear warhead. In order to come to a stable, satisfactory arrangement in which Iran develops peaceful nuclear energy options, both sides need to understand the other’s motivations for good or bad.

-Nate Sumi


Iran Nuclear Timeline (super helpful):



  1. missypittard says:

    I greatly enjoyed the theme of your post, and you bring up many of the issues at play.

    It seems Iranians are intent to pursue a nuclear program based on maintaining “national dignity,” as well as for their own defense. This program allows Iran to affirm itself as an advanced nation, as well as defend itself from a potential attacks from the U.S. and Israel (not out of the question). There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding what their primary motive is, but the world is not willing to take any risks by allowing Iran to become a nuclear state. The great powers of today are motivated to protect the world from this potential threat, but it has unfortunately come at the cost of would be a wealthy nation to be increasingly impoverished by sanctions.

    Entertaining, yet relevant article:

  2. emartin36 says:

    I think that the world is being forced to move to nuclear energy, and sooner or later, it is going to be impossible to stop potentially threatening countries from gaining access to nuclear power. It has come to a point, however, where the world, specifically the UN and other international organizations, needs to decide on a way to bring the rest of the world into the nuclear age while also assuring the safety of surrounding countries.

    • mdsmith910 says:

      I completely agree. The big question is: How does the UN do this? In the case of nuclear wars, it seems as though it would oscillate out of control, given the degree of devastation. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  3. ashumway3 says:

    I agree that every country has a right to explore alternative energy sources and I’m a supporter of nuclear power. However, it is also extremely important that this incredible power to create massive amounts of energy is not used for violence. But who gets to decide who is allowed to have advanced technologies and who isn’t? Looking back at history, the US is the only country in the world to ever use nuclear weapons in a war (and on civilian targets nonetheless), yet we are one of the countries on the short list that is “permitted” to own nuclear weapons. It’s an interesting topic to think about because obviously the US is responsible with this power and has not used nuclear weapons since World War II, even when facing threats from various places around the world. Would Iran be responsible with this power? Who gets to make this call?

  4. Travis says:

    It is true that you must take into consideration each side’s mentality in the negotiations between Iran and other countries, in particular the United States. I thought that the motivations you listed for Iran having nuclear power were interesting. Different countries want nuclear power for different things that range from clean energy, to advancements in technology, to nuclear war heads. It could also be possible for a country to say that they want nuclear power for one goal, but use the nuclear power to obtain a different goal once the nuclear power is required. Therefore, it is understandable why countries are weary of other countries having nuclear power. Comfort is usually established by rules and regulations set in place by nuclear treaties which serves as a demonstration of their significance.

  5. trevormcelhenny says:

    I can understand the concerns of the potential diversion of nuclear technology and subsequent production of warheads, and also Israel’s concerns for Iran possessing nuclear warheads. I guess it’s like how I feel about some of my (shall we say, “not so bright”) friends owning assault rifles and firearms in general. I’ve seen them do a lot of dumb things, but then again, I’m not exactly perfect and I also enjoy collecting and shooting firearms of all caliber (assault rifles included). I have no intentions of ever harming anyone, and I’m sure none of my friends do either. It’s just the potential is always there. However, the law says we can legally possess them, barring certain age and criminal background requirements. And furthermore, if you are ever convicted with domestic violence, assault, or any felony for which a prison sentence of more than one year could be imposed, under federal law you can no longer possess a firearm.

    Is that what should be done with the Iran nuclear technology issue? Give them a chance to prove themselves, but if they mess up, even just once, no more nukes? “Once” with a nuke is a disaster at best.

  6. jackjenkins2015 says:

    Like many other commenters, I think you brought up some great points in this article. I’m glad you posted this to give even further insight on the issue after my post last week. Since the Cold War, we have seen a great (and justified) fear of nuclear weapons. Even though nuclear energy is a pretty great source of energy, the constant fear of nuclear weapons definitely scares people and governments. Everyone wants nuclear warheads to defend themselves against other countries with nuclear warheads, but fortunately everyone has been too cautious about actually using them. If they did, the results would be unimaginable.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s unjustified for Iran to argue for their right to produce nuclear energy. I also don’t know how the UN decides who are the “bad guys” that don’t get to build nuclear weapons when the US has way, way too many of our own. Although the great tension in the Middle East, especially between Iran and Israel, makes me nervous about any military escalation, it’s definitely not an easy black and white decision to make about Iran’s nuclear program. Thanks for elaborating on this issue, and definitely emphasizing the complexities of international relations.

    • amiteichenbaum says:

      I completely agree that the UN deciding who gets nuclear weapons is baffling. Honestly, I don’t think any one should have a nuclear arsenal to begin with and I wish they were all destroyed. However, Iran having nuclear weapons is threatening to many people because past leaders have specifically said they plan to “wipe Israel off the map”. This is a cause for concern. I don’t think they have done enough to gain the trust of of the interacting international powers, because in my opinion it is very hard to believe they will not weaponize their nuclear developments. It’s interesting to think to how the US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons, and on civilians (as mentioned above by ashumway3) and now they are essentially governing who gets them.

  7. coreilly says:

    I think Iran is like any other nation in the world, or at least the ‘active’ world. I can see where they are coming from. If I were them and all of my enemies had nuclear power and nuclear weapons, I would feel one step behind and would want to catch up. That being said, I think it is dangerous for them to have operational nuclear weapons. I wouldn’t say Iran is our friend, so if they were to have nuclear capability it would be a threat to our nation and to our allies.

  8. mlucchi says:

    I rarely see articles about Iran’s side of these nuclear talks so I enjoyed this discussion. I think its always good to look at events in broad perspective which is why I think its good that you went through the history of Iran’s nuclear program since the beginning where the US was the first country to help out and even provided the first reactor. A point of discussion from last week was that politics always seems have an adverse effect on international relations and treaties. The relations between the US and Iran, Iran and Iraq, or Iran and Israel, seem to vary throughout modern history based on each individual nations’ and nation’s leaders interests. During the cold war, when Russia and the US were competing for influence in the world, both countries were pursuing diplomatic relations with places like Iran. Later on, when everything became about oil, it was about replacing regimes with ones that would trade better. Like the world’s superpowers, Iran seeks to further its own interests and in this age, and in this age that is by having a relevant defense and energy program I suppose.

  9. jkempa3 says:

    From the slight research I have done on nuclear power production there is a significant difference in the percentage of enriched U-235 contained in commercial reactors versus weapons grade use. To see an entity claim they simply want power but pursue more advanced centrifuges and higher levels of enriched uranium is highly contradictory. It seems that many people could greatly increase their knowledge on the difference between power production versus nuclear weapons proliferation by doing a simple Google search for about fifteen minutes.
    I liked your article and found it very informative. I am not convinced that Iran simply wants nuclear capabilities for energy production. This blog addresses the possible reasons that Iran may be chasing nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy production thoroughly.

  10. lalaninatl says:

    I think the move to nuclear is inevitable for a lot of places. The reasons you lists are a great example why and the arising concerns. However, nuclear technology is expensive so hopefully countries think twice before using the technology as weapons. It makes sense that Iran really wants to have some form of nuclear technology. In terms of defense, I think that anyone that uses nuclear weaponry on Iran without just cause will garner support from other countries that have nuclear weaponry, so they shouldn’t be worried about gaining nuclear weaponry.

  11. ssweeny3 says:

    Obtaining nuclear technology and using it in as a clean energy source is a very good economic decision. Being able to produce all of the countries energy and then some using nuclear energy allows it to sell their other sources of energy, mainly petroleum, to other countries around the world. Now, not only are they becoming more economically stable, but they are increasing their international relations by selling to these different countries. However, one statement in this blog post causes hesitation. “It’s easy to understand Iran’s desire to match their strength, having for years called for the annihilation of Israel.” Israel has had nuclear weapons for years and not acted against Iran using them. It sounds like Iran, if they had nuclear weapons capability, would almost certainly use them against Israel. Then we would be in a worse position than we are now because we would them have to act against that country for using nuclear weapons against Israel.

  12. jyount6 says:

    One phrase to rule them all in this debate: Mutually Assured Destruction. Iran has to know that the minute they launched an ICBM if that was something they were capable of, then there would be a retaliation from the friends of whatever country they struck. This has been an issue since the cold war. Only a madman with no insight into the future would seriously consider launching nuclear weapons into another country. So then we have to ask ourselves, would a madman have access to the uranium available in the country to perform such a deed? If we think not (we being the global community), then maybe we should give Iran a pass for nuclear energy. Not something to be taken lightly though.

  13. Kevin says:

    Although it is not in the United States’ interest, I think Iran is justified in pursuing nuclear technology even if it is only for military applications. Iran can’t hope to defend itself effectively if it is fighting nuclear bombs with conventional weaponry. If Iran perceives a nation with nuclear weapons as a threat, then it doesn’t matter what sanctions we place on them: it would be foolish for them to not develop nuclear technology. The problem of nuclear proliferation could only be solved if all nations believe they have no use for nuclear weapons. In any other situation, nations will do what they think is necessary to survive.

  14. nrassam3 says:

    The only reason why Iran is not allowed nuclear technology is of Israel. If Israel was not in this discussion, Iran and majority of the countries in the middle east would have gotten nuclear plants many years ago. But the fear that Muslims would retaliate from Israel is what keeps the international community from allowing middle eastern countries to gain nuclear energy.

  15. austinsoper says:

    It is one thing for a country to seek Nuclear weapons as a means of self defense, but Iran has explicitly stated that it wants to eliminate a country and an entire race of people, from the face of the planet. The sheer destructive power of Nuclear weapons can not in good conscious be allowed in the hands of a state that could ostensibly use them with impunity.

  16. owest3 says:

    Nuclear energy is a touchy subject when it comes to the middle east and I think the rest of the world fears what could happen if someone with insincere intentions gains control of a nuclear weapon. In the case of Israel, they are suspected to have gained an arsenal of nuclear weapons purely for the sake of protection, and honestly who blames them? But, it seems as though other countries like Iran have retaliated with their own desire for nuclear power so they may one day successfully attack Israel. I think in the next few years, the desire for nuclear power is going to significantly increase but we need to be aware of those who have access to this very dangerous power.

  17. jenglish7 says:

    Despite public appearances, there is something to be said when it comes to subtext. Despite the apparent willingness of all parties to push through and arrive at a peaceful and mutually agreeable situation, things such as the Stuxnet infiltration of Iran’s nuclear facilities only serve to undermine the legitimacy of the public talks. Despite there being no positive confirmation of Stuxnet’s origins, it is the consensus of several leading security experts that the only organization with the means and motive to pull off this highly sophisticated attack is the US National Security Agency. Perhaps the talks are just theater, and any apparent progress on the matter is just a result of shifting political agendas.

  18. kimpgt says:

    Great post! I agree with you about the reason for Iran wanting to develop nuclear power and weapons. The motion began prior to the Israel-Iran conflict, beginning in the 1950s, also, with aid from the US. Though Iran has natural oil and gas reservoirs, developing nuclear power would have helped Iran become a stronger nation and more independent, as they can provide their own resources. It is also important to note that Iran currently has an on-going conflict with Israel, and creating nuclear power can fuel warfare among the two nations. All motives must be considered in deciding whether to allow Iran to continue with these efforts.

  19. apabst3 says:

    This post was very informative because I barely know a thing about Iran’s nuclear aspirations. I agree with a few of the comments that point out how nuclear power will soon be the leading source of power in the world. Because of this change, dangerous countries will have to have access to nuclear technology in order to power their country. It will be tricky to police these new nuclear programs. When will protection turn in to stifling development?

  20. zhu64 says:

    This is just a political situation that just got out of hand. Iran want nuclear weapons to advance their standings with the world. united states doesn’t want a nation not allied to them getting a nuclear weapon. Israel wants middle east supremacy. All the talk about Iran nuking Israel is just nonsense, would they really hate a country enough to commit suicide?

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