Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear technology, however, transcends the differences. It also transcends the regime itself. Iran was looking to build nuclear capabilities under the Shah, before the 1979 revolution. It never abandoned that intention.
Iran Asserts Its Right to Nuclear Technology—and Weaponry
As far back as April 1984, Jane’s Defense Weekly, the respected, London-based defense journal, was reporting that West German companies had been building two nuclear reactors for the Iranians near the Iranian city of Bushehr, and that the reactors could be used to produce materials for an atomic bomb. Construction had begun under the Shah in the 1970s, and therefore with American knowledge and likely approval (the Shah was a close ally of the United States). Construction was stopped during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
In 1988, in a speech to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani declared: “We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons. From now on you should make use of the opportunity and perform the task.” At other times, however, Rafsanjani has called for the prohibition and abolition of such weapons.
In 1991, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, a National Intelligence Estimate, in a cautiously worded report, stated that Iran’s nuclear program was disorganized and only in the initial stages of development, but that some factions of the country’s revolutionary leaders were intent on developing nuclear weapons. At the time, Iran was acquiring nuclear technology from China and seeking it — according to Iranian press reports — from India (which exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1974).
Iran’s Israel Factor
In October 1991, the Deputy Iranian President, Ayatollah Mohajerani, told the Persian daily Abrar that all Muslim countries should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons as long as Israel maintained a nuclear stockpile (Israel has always publicly denied having nuclear weapons, but is commonly acknowledged to have a stockpile). “Israel,” Mohajerani also said, “should be totally deprived of its nuclear capacity. I mean, what has been done to Iraq in respect of its nuclear capacity should be done exactly to Israel.” In 1981, Israeli Air Force jets destroyed the French-built Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad, which Israelis claimed was being used to develop nuclear weapons.
While Iran has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions, it’s made no secret of its missile program, either. Since 2002 or 2003, Iran has stocked the Shehab-3 rocket, which can travel 800 miles, or 1,300 km—long enough to reach Israel from many points in Iran. The missile could be armed with a nuclear warhead, but Iran has claimed all along that its missile was purely defensive.
The 1990s Thaw
The mid-to-late 1990s produced somewhat of a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States as the regime seemed to be moderating and looking for overtures toward the West. That was especially true after the election of President Muhammad Khatami in 1997, who promised reforms even as he frequently asserted Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology.
As Jahangir Amuzegar, a finance minister and economic ambassador in Iran’s pre-1979 government, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2003, a Khatami’s election and his “subsequent suggestion that ‘the wall of mistrust’ between the two countries be torn down, reconciliation once more began to seem possible, particularly toward the end of Bill Clinton’s administration. But mutual hostility was suddenly raised to a new high under George W. Bush.”