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The roots of Iran's nuclear program

It's quest to develop a nuclear program has taken a circuitous path through history – and includes early cooperation with the US.

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But the shah wanted more than a nuclear toy. He had grandiose plans for a network of 23 nuclear power reactors by the 1990s, with much of the equipment purchased from US suppliers. And as recently declassified documents make clear, the course of nuclear negotiations between the shah and an array of US officials was far from smooth.

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US worries were like those of today: Officials thought it possible that Iran would build on nuclear power programs to develop weapons technology.

A secret 1974 Defense Department memo, declassified and posted online by the National Security Archive, noted that stability in Iran depended heavily on the shah's personality.

"An aggressive successor to the Shah might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran's complete military dominance of the region," noted the memo.

The shah became increasingly irritated as a series of US presidents objected to his desire to reprocess spent reactor fuel on Iranian soil. He viewed this as a national right granted him under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran had signed in 1968. "He had a nationalist perspective that had some parallels with [Iran's position] today," says Dr. William Burr, director of nuclear history documentation at the National Security Archive.

The two sides squabbled for years over how much control the US would retain over Iran's nuclear efforts. American officials didn't really think the shah wanted nuclear weapons, at least right away. But they worried he wanted to preserve that option. When US scientists toured the site of Iran's planned Esfehan Nuclear Technology Center, they noticed that it was unusually large. Seven miles east of a population center, located between two mountains, the site was geographically reminiscent of a US facility. "One member of the ... team commented on the similarity of this location to the US Sandia Weapons Laboratory location," noted a cable from the US Embassy back to Washington.

In the late 1970s, the two nations finally struck a deal. Iran would get nuclear technology, but the US would control when and where any reprocessing of fissile material would take place. And then came the revolution. Protests and pro-cleric guerrillas forced the shah from power in February 1979. The nuclear deal with the US died. For 10 years, Iran's nuclear program remained on hold, as Ayatollah Khomeini established a Shiite theocracy and then fought the bitter Iran-Iraq War.

YEARS LATER, THE NOTORIOUS nuclear technology smuggler A.Q. Khan boasted about how he and his contacts helped Iran's nuclear program revive. Mr. Khan is a Pakistani scientist who worked at European uranium enrichment facilities. By the late 1980s, he'd returned home and set himself up as a kind of Nuke-Mart – the closest thing to a one-stop shop for clandestine nuclear needs.

Around that time, Mr. Khan was approached by Iranian representatives interested in purchasing some nuclear items. He was happy to help.

"If Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear technology, we will be a strong bloc in the region to counter international pressure," Khan told a Pakistani broadcast journalist in August, according to a transcript from the US director of national intelligence's Open Source Center. "Iran's nuclear capability will neutralize Israel's power."