Efforts are currently underway to ease tensions again between the US and Iran. This follows significant hostility from Washington under Donald Trump’s presidency. In light of the renewed focus on nuclear talks, Phoenix Media Co-op asked nuclear policy specialist Joe Cirincione if Iran has a nuclear weapons programme. He answered:
No, they don’t. They used to have a nuclear weapons programme. That is, under the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 70s, Iran had a very ambitious civilian nuclear programme, including plans to build facilities to enrich uranium and facilities to process the spent fuel from reactors so they could extract the plutonium. Uranium and plutonium are the two materials that are used for nuclear weapons. The US okayed those plans after much discussion because the Shah of Iran was our ally, bought a lot of military equipment from us – hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment. And we knew the Shah… was secretly exploring the possibility of building nuclear weapons; but we didn’t object as strenuously as we should’ve.
Cirincione then went on to explain Iran’s nuclear activities after the country overthrew the Shah in 1979:
When… Ayatollah Khomeini took over in the Revolution in 1979, he cancelled all that – he shut down the nuclear programmes: civilian programmes, the secret nuclear weapons research. He said it was a Western technology and Iran shouldn’t have any part of it. He restarted the nuclear programme in the 1980s when Iraq attacked Iran and started using chemical weapons against Iran and no one came to their aid. In fact, the United States at that time vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would’ve condemned the Iraqi chemical weapons attack. He then decided: ‘Well, maybe we do need this option.’
When the war ended, that nuclear weapons exploration went back into the shadows, but it didn’t quite end; and they started… exploring it again in the 90s. But according to US intelligence, the coordinated nuclear weapons program – that is a programme that was looking at how to build a nuclear weapon, how they could manufacture it – that ended in 2003 and has not restarted.
Civilian nuclear development
Cirincione continued by stressing that:
what you have instead is a civilian nuclear programme where they… built a reactor at Bushehr… . And then they said they wanted to make the fuel for it. They wanted to enrich uranium. The problem, of course, is that the same machines – centrifuges – that can enrich uranium for fuel can be used to enrich uranium for weapons purposes. The same facilities, same machines, same process – you just run it a little longer. …
So no, they don’t have a dedicated nuclear weapons program. What they have is a civilian nuclear programme that could be used at some future point to make the material for a bomb.
Reviving the nuclear deal
Leverage is only useful if you have credibility; and right now the US has got some pretty low credibility. Donald Trump destroyed so much of our credibility in the world. And the real leverage comes from rejoining the deal. If you rejoin the deal, you’re showing that the US is once again going to keep its word, that the United States… [will] not go off in a maverick direction…
But [current US president Joe Biden] didn’t quickly reenter the deal. … Fortunately, they’ve recognised that mistake and they’re trying to make up for it now.
He also stressed, however, that both the US and Iran “really have to be synchronised” in showing how and when they’ll return to the conditions of the deal:
You really have to be looking at a roadmap that lays down exactly what everybody’s going to do when and then a synchronisation where both countries start to take those steps with the support of the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese who are acting as… the moderators and referees in this conflict.
These steps, he explained, would include the US gradually lifting sanctions and Iran stopping some of the activities it engaged in following Trump’s exit from the deal.
More about the interviewee
Cirincione is a ‘distinguished non-resident fellow’ at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He previously worked as non-proliferation director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late; and of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.