Iran started its nuclear program in 1950s but had slow progress until 1973 when the late Shah founded Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), which was tasked to oversee the operation of installing 23,000MWe of nuclear power in Iran with Americans help by 2000. Iran purchased 10% stake of a plant in France for $1billion, and 15% of a uranium mine in Namibia. Shah also sent scientists for nuclear training and paid $700million to buy uranium yellowcake from South Africa. Islamic revolution in 1979 hindered all the projects, nuclear scientists fled the country and Khomeini was against using nuclear technologies, therefore, everything was suspended including Boushehr Nuclear Power Plant.
In late 80s and early 90s, after the war with Iraq, Islamic Republic officials refocused on the nuclear technology, signed contracts with Pakistan (1987) and China (1990). Both countries agreed to train Iranian scientists, while China also sold MNSR and Qinshan power reactors to Iran. Russia signed an accord in January 1995 to complete Boushehr’s plant and building new reactors.
US intelligence gained access to evidence showing suspicious activities in different sites of Iran which were not known to IAEA, including Natanz Enrichment Complex, and heavy water production plant in Arak. Iran started stalling negotiations with EU-3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) from 2003 to 2006 in order to avoid United Nations sanctions. IAEA referred Iran’s case to UN Security Council in February 2006. In response to UNSC, in April, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the second site of enrichment of uranium which raised even more concerns that Iran may be on its way to access weapons grade uranium and nuclear weapon. In June, US, Russia and China joined EU-3 to create P5+1 to negotiate with Iran pursuing diplomacy.
Why world powers and UN have been so worried about Iran accessing nuclear weapon? The nature of Islamic Republic, since inception, has been antisemitism. Here are some examples of the remarks by Iran’s Supreme Leader and President between 2001 and 2012:
Ahmadinejad, the then President:
December 8, 2005: “Some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. Any historian, commentator or scientist who doubts that is taken to prison or gets condemned. Although we don’t accept this claim, if we suppose it is true… If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe – like in Germany, Austria or other countries – to the Zionists and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe and we will support it.”
December 11, 2006: “Thanks to people’s wishes and God’s will the trend for the existence of the Zionist regime is [headed] downwards and this is what God has promised and what all nations want. The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was, and humanity will achieve freedom.”
May 8, 2008:”Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken. Today the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.”
July 2012: “Any freedom lover and justice seeker in the world must do its best for the annihilation of the Zionist regime in order to pave the path for the establishment of justice and freedom in the world.”
Khamenei, the Supreme Leader:
2001: “It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.”
2012: “The Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor and it will be removed.”
Iran defied all calls and ultimately in July UNSC passed Resolution 1696 unanimously demanding Iran to suspend all enrichment activities, banned transferring of nuclear and missile technologies to Iran, froze assets of 12 individuals and 10 organizations involved with Iran’s nuclear program. Resolution 1737 was passed at the same month when Iran opened Arak heavy water plant and expanded Natanz facility’s operation.
14 June 2008, P5+1 offered Iran a package of incentives including a guaranteed nuclear fuel supply and access to Light-Weight Reactor (LWR) technology in return for suspension of uranium enrichment. Days before the deadline, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said, “Iran will continue its path” which led to UNSC Resolution 1835 on September 27, 2008.
A year later, on September 21, 2009, Iran announced building of the second enrichment facility in an IRGC owned base near Qom called Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), carrying the task of enriching uranium at 19.75% and above. US intelligence believed the size, secrecy and location of this plant was paving the way for Iran to produce Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) used for nuclear weapons.
Talks with P5+1 resumed on October 1, 2009 in Geneva. Negotiations went well and parties agreed on fuel swap, but Iran rolled back on the agreement on October 19, 2009 in Vienna. They reached an impasse. A few days later, Ahmadinejad announced Iran has enriched U-235 at 20% and could enrich it further if they want. He added Iran would like to have 10 more enrichment sites and head of AEOI said 20 sites are being assessed and constructions would begin in a year, causing increased tensions with international community.
In June 2010 more sanctions from UNSC were imposed on IRGC and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). Brazil and Turkey tried to broker a deal in May 2010, but it fell through, since west considered Iran’s offer unacceptable. More meetings were convened in different locations and dates but to no avail, since Iran would ask for sanctions to be lifted as a precondition for any deal. Russia’s offer was refused by P5+1 for early stage lifting of sanctions, western powers not trusting Iran, since Islamic Republic has had a history of stalling negotiations to get what they wanted.
November 8, 2011 was the very first report from IAEA with clear evidence about “Project Amad” of Iran’s secret nuclear program which mostly happened in early 2000s explaining the military aspects of it and how Iran has attempted in making a nuclear explosive device.
Russia and China opposed more UNSC sanctions making EU and US to take unilateral actions and impose unprecedented sanction on all banks and financial institution, warning all countries carrying business with Iran would have significant risks. In summer of 2012, US Congress sanctions went into effect against Iran’s oil and petroleum sectors. EU and US also froze all assets of Iran’s Central Bank and all Iranian financial institutions in January and February 2012, respectively.
Throughout 2012 Iran refused IAEA to inspect Parchin military complex in Tehran. In May 2013, IAEA said Iran has “spread, leveled and compacted materials over most of the site.” Many meetings were held in 2012 and 2013 with no resolution.
In August 2012, President Obama imposed more sanctions and EU followed suit. These sanctions were mostly on insuring, reinsuring, brokering and import of Iran’s natural gas and shipping Iran’s oil. In May 2013, US Congress passed a law restricting Iran oil’s export. Effective July 1, 2013, financial institutions were not allowed to have transactions in rial or maintain a rial account outside Iran.
Despite all the sanctions, and the pressure ordinary Iranians have been under, Islamic Republic regime started expanding its bases in Syria in 2011. By December 2013, Iran was spending more than $6billion annually to keep Bashar Al-Assad in power, and some research put that number at $15billion per year. Millions of people have lost their lives in that civil war, where IRGC have been in the frontline defending Assad’s regime against the rebels. It has never been a secret that Iran supports Lebanese Hezbollah and spend billions of dollars there. IRGC also built several bases in Iraq, backing Popular Mobilization Forces/Unit (PMF, PMU) and Hashd al-Shaabi since 2014. Let’s not forget about Yemen, where millions of people have been killed in a civil war. IRGC spends billions of dollars supporting Houthis by sending weapons and other supplies.
Additionally, sanctions were like a blessing in disguise for some people. IRGC officers and their families established shell companies offshore and got involved in money laundering, making a fortune in the process. Besides Ali Khamenei’s ideology and stubbornness, this was another reason for IRGC to oppose negotiations with the West.