26 May 2024
Matthew Fuhrmann: America
This article was written byMatthew Fuhrmann forthe Council on Foreign Relations blogs on July 25, 2012.Matthew Fuhrmann is assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University and a former Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Irans nuclear program poses a threat to many nationsparticularly Israel and the United States. Yet, it is sometimes forgotten that Washington was an early supporter of Tehrans nuclear ambitions.

The United States provided peaceful nuclear assistance to Iran from 1957 to 1979, when the two states were allies. Washington exported theTehran Research Reactor (TRR), enriched uranium to fuel it, and hot cells, which can be used to produce plutoniuma critical ingredient for making nuclear weapons. All of this aid was provided for civilian uses, but it ended up indirectly augmenting Irans nuclear weapons program. For example, from 1988 to 1992 Iran conducted covert plutonium reprocessing experiments using fuel pelletsirradiated in the TRR.

The Iranian experience exposes a problem known as the dual-use dilemma: because nuclear technology has both peaceful and military applications, nuclear energy aid provides a potential foundation for a bomb program.

However, this danger has not deterred the United States from providing nuclear energy assistance to many countries. Today, for instance, Washington is in the midst of negotiatingagreements with Jordan and Vietnamthat would permit the sharing of nuclear technology, materials, and know-how.

Deals such as these could be a recipe for the further spread of nuclear weapons.

In anew book, I explore the relationship between peaceful nuclear assistance and nuclear proliferation. Based on an analysis of global nuclear commerce from 1945 to 2000, I show that states are much more likely to covet (and successfully build) nuclear weapons when they accumulate atomic assistanceparticularly if they experience an international crisis after receiving aid.

Iran is just one of several proliferators that benefited from nuclear energy assistance. India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 using plutonium that was produced in a Canadian-supplied civilian reactor. Iraq probably intended to use a French-supplied civilian facility known as Osiraq for military purposes before it was bombed by Israel in 1981. And scientists from North Korea and South Africa received trainingfrom the Soviet Union and the United States, respectivelyunder the auspices of civilian nuclear cooperation that ultimately facilitated nuclear proliferation.

The international community has instituted a variety of measuresincluding International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard to limit the proliferation potential of peaceful nuclear aid. Yet, as Iran, Iraq, Libya, South Korea, and others have shown, motivated states can circumvent existing rules and regulations with relative ease.

Why, then, do countries provide peaceful nuclear assistance? Suppliers typically offer aid to buy cooperation from the recipient country. For example, the United States assisted Irans nuclear program to shore up its military alliance with Tehran and to influence Iranian policies on oil pricing. Nuclear exporters hope that they can reap the political and economic benefits of nuclear assistance without contributing to nuclear proliferation. Yet, in the long run, their gambles often backfire.

The United States and other suppliers should revise their nuclear trade policies to prevent history from repeating itself. Requiring customers to refrain from building indigenous uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing plants (these facilities can produce bomb-grade materials) after accumulating relevant knowledge through peaceful nuclear assistance would be a particularly fruitful policy. Washington has so farexpressed little enthusiasmabout applying this policy across the board. However, swift action is needed to help prevent future crises like the one that is ongoing in Iran.

 

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