Did the US create its own nightmares by distributing nuclear training and enriched uranium to several countries 68 years ago?
The politics and disputes surrounding nuclear weapons, and particularly Iran’s nuclear programme, has been one of the most headline-grabbing issues in the past few years.
Most recently, it was announced that talks between Iran and several powers will resume in Vienna on Thursday as European diplomats last week urged Tehran to come back with more realistic proposals.
A 2015 deal struck by Tehran and six major powers (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) limited Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief from the US, European Union and UN. The US in 2018 withdrew from the agreement during former president Donald Trump’s term but when Joe Biden came into power he indicated that his country is willing to return to it.
While the US is at the forefront today of opposing nuclear proliferation - the spread of nuclear technology dates back to the 1950s when the US, under the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, came to the fore with an offer attempting a risky balancing act between war and peace, secrecy and transparency. Today marks the day that all started.
Before the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953, US President Eisenhower in a famous speech called “Atoms for Peace” said; “If a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.”
Recognising the paradoxical danger offered by the nuclear age, Eisenhower saw how the world of war changed.
“I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new—one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use. That new language is the language of atomic warfare,” he said.
As part of his “Atoms for Peace” programme, he proposed that “governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable material to an international atomic energy agency.”
The programme was based on a bargain between Washington and developing states where the US provided highly enriched uranium to 30 countries to fuel research reactors, as well as training to those pursuing civilian nuclear programmes. In return, the US demanded recipient states to remain committed to only use such technology and training for non-military, peaceful and civilian purposes.
According to The Arms Control Association, Eisenhower’s policies on one hand did hasten the international diffusion of scientific and industrial nuclear technology, and some recipient nations. On the other hand, “Atoms for Peace” produced many of the most important elements of today’s nuclear nonproliferation regime: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the concept of nuclear safeguards, and most importantly, the norm of nuclear nonproliferation.
Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan were among those countries which benefited from Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” programme.
Nonetheless, in 2003, the US state department stated that only less than ten countries have acknowledged producing nuclear weapons.
“On the plus side, one of these, South Africa, voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons. Also on the plus side, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine voluntarily surrendered the nuclear weapons systems they inherited at the breakup of the Soviet Union. In South America, Argentina and Brazil abandoned nuclear weapons programmes in the early 1990s and pioneered a regional confidence-building mechanism,” it added.
Today, the implementation of the former US president’s programme is still subject to criticism for facilitating nuclear proliferation by spreading dual use nuclear technology and materials, such as highly enriched uranium, used in early civilian nuclear programmes that can also be used for the production of nuclear weapons.
Some people still believe that the programme enabled aspirant countries like Iran to acquire the necessary technologies and materials for the development of a nuclear weapons programme.
Tehran’s desire to invest in a nuclear programme dates back to the 1950s, when the country's autocratic ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, or the Shah of Iran, signed a treaty with the US in which Washington would help Tehran to build its nuclear programme.
As part of US President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace programme, Iran, a US ally under the Shah's rule, received nuclear assistance from Washington from 1957 to 1979 for 'peaceful' purposes.
Following the oil boom in the 1970s, Iran’s nuclear programme was converted into a civilian nuclear programme.
As the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah's regime in 1979, taking Iran away from America's orbit and turning it from a friend to foe, its nuclear ambitions have become a major global policy crisis until today.