In 2003, Iran set aside the portion of its nuclear program devoted to developing a weapon. That was the assessment of the American intelligence community, which among other things eavesdropped on hardliners complaining to one another about the decision. But why did Iran stop?
The conventional wisdom cites the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which at that point looked like a great success. The thinking is with 100,000 American troops on its longest border and tens of thousands more next door in Afghanistan, the mullahs simply got spooked. President George W. Bush had, after all, named them as part of his “axis of evil” and already launched one war in the name of corralling weapons of mass destruction.
But there’s an alternate explanation, one that casts the entire Iranian nuclear program at a new and different angle. This explanation also assumes the mullahs’ decision pivoted on the fall of Baghdad, but mostly because Saddam Hussein fell with it. Iran has more than its share of enemies, but Saddam was the the only one who spent eight years trying to conquer the place, launching the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 to topple the religious republic. It was the Iraqi dictator’s pursuit of nuclear weapons that prompted Iran to revive a moribund nuclear program and explore the business of atomic warheads as well. And it was Saddam’s demise that provided reason to abandon the effort – a logic that may well have been reinforced by the presence of all those U.S. troops on the doorstep.
“When the revolution happened in 1979 the Shah of course was in the midst of developing a nuclear power program, and everybody suspected that he was really going to go for a bomb,” notes Gary Sick, a Columbia University expert who was at the National Security Council when the U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by crowds chanting the name of Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. “We have subsequently learned, from memoirs, that he wanted to have what he called a surge capability, by which he meant a breakout capability, whereby you have the means to assemble a weapon if you make the decision.” Any country with nuclear power has that capability; it’s typically just a matter of enriching uranium to a level of purity that renders it suitable for weapons.
“When the revolution happened all of that stopped,” Sick says, “and Khomeini, who operated on the supposition that everything the Shah did must be bad, issued a fatwa saying nuclear weapons are sinful.” The cleric was not simply contrary, of course. The Koran is pretty clear on the rules of war. You are not to kill non-combatants: “You do not kill indiscriminately,” noted Sick, who laid out the alternate narrative for TIME. “That is the rule of Islam.”
The Iranians appeared to take the rule seriously. When Iraq fired missiles, Iran wanted to fire back. But its woefully inaccurate missiles were almost sure to hit civilians. The Iranians’ solution was to issue statements announcing that they were at least aiming at military targets. At the White House at the time, Sick took it all in. “They would always announce that they were aiming their weapons at a certain thing, in Basra or Baghdad, and of course their weapons were hugely inaccurate, but they could at least console themselves that they didn’t want to. I read all of their announcements during that period. They were meticulous actually as far as these things go, not to kill indiscriminately….”
Then Saddam began using WMD. His forces fired shells filled with mustard gas, some even with Sarin, the nerve agent. Iranian intelligence passed on credible reports that Iraq was developing the means to manufacture a nuclear weapon. It was at this point that the mullahs reconsidered their own policy. The decision came in 1984, according to internal documents at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Khomeini lifted the fatwa, and Iran revived the shah’s nuclear effort. This time the justification was found in the Koran’s permission for self-defense.
Of course, the worries about an Iraqi bomb were entirely valid. By the time U.S. forces entered Iraq in the First Gulf War, in 1991, the nuclear program appeared to be within a year of producing a deliverable weapon. The program was dismantled under UN supervision as a condition of Saddam’s surrender. And despite the dictator’s subsequent bluster and a lot of bad U.S. intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion, it was never actually revived.
The Iranians may not have known that any more than the West did. “They believed Saddam was developing a nuclear weapon,” Sick says. “He wanted people to believe. We did. Iran believed that too.” So Tehran continued its own clandestine program, begun with the help of Pakistan. The project included what Sick terms “table-top experiments” with weaponization, “looking at what it would take to make a nuclear weapon. That,” he says, “ is the stuff that all the talk is about in the UN Security Council, all these efforts before 2003.”
Indeed, most of what appears in the annex of the Nov. 8, 2011 report of the IAEA, titled “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” documents efforts from before 2003, though inspectors also raise suspicions about some work done since. But if it pays to be skeptical of Iran’s leadership, it never hurts to bring the Iran-Iraq war into an effort to understand Iranian thinking. The eight-year war was the searing experience of national life, claiming at least 300,000 lives and perhaps twice that. Billboards honoring the war dead still line major freeways. Tehran’s main military cemetery is a city unto itself.
Comparatively speaking, the belligerence toward Washington and Israel is almost elective, though that could change in a heartbeat if one or both countries launch an attack on the nuclear facilities. Since being exposed in 2002, the program has become synonymous with scientific advancement and defiant national pride. Sick suggests the hidden side of the program, exploring weaponization, remains a source of embarrassment even as history, in that Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has repeated the fatwa against atomic weapons, emphatically and repeatedly.
So as negotiations between world powers and Tehran resume next month, it may be fitting that the meeting will be in Baghdad. “The reality is they’ve already been around that track once,” says Sick. “They put in the prohibition. They suspended it, at least, when they believed they were faced with an adversary who really wanted to do away with them. But after that they went back to Khomeini’s position, which became Khamenei’s position.”
And it’s entirely possible, he says, that the entire Iranian enterprise has come full circle, returning to the position of the Shah, who got his start with a US program called Atoms for Peace, and took things from there. It’s all the mullahs claim to want as well. “That does not mean they won’t have a surge or breakout potential,” Sick says. “But that’s true of at least 40 countries in the world right now, so Iran wouldn’t be alone.”