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Updated May 2010  

What are the latest developments in the Iran nuclear controversy?

The standoff between Iran and much of the world community over its nuclear program continues. The problem became exacerbated in September 2009 when Iran disclosed the existence of a second enrichment plant which had previously been undeclared. Iran continues to publicly maintain that its nuclear program is entirely for energy production and that it is not weapons related. In May 2010, in an effort to appease the United Nations and the world community, Iran announced an agreement with neighboring Turkey on the exchange of 1200 kgs of Iran's low-enriched uranium - which would be held in Turkey - for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. A week later, Iran conveyed its support for the proposed fuel exchange to the IAEA and asked the IAEA to inform the United States, Russia and France in order to begin negotiation of a formal agreement. It is unclear whether this agreement is a significant development in resolving the impasse.

What is the current controversy regarding Iran's nuclear program?

The basis of concern is Iran's stated intent to develop nuclear technology even for peaceful purposes. The US and Europe believe that Iran has secret plans to develop nuclear weapons and the technology that Iran acquires regarding uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes would be applied to secret military projects. The controversy involving Iran is similar to the North Korean controversy in that both countries have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement. But it is dissimilar in that North Korea has declared its intent to withdraw from the treaty, while Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful and in compliance with its NNPT obligations. The U.S. does not believe these declarations because of alleged Iranian bellicose statements regarding the U.S. and Israel and the fact that the U.S. believes that Iran's abundance of oil does not make nuclear power economically attractive. Iran notes that its plans to develop nuclear power are not new; a German-assisted project there was under development in 1979 before the overthrow of the Shah.

But what about countries who never signed the NNPT agreement, shouldn't there be concern about them?

Four countries are not parties to this agreement: Israel, India, Pakistan, and Cuba. Of these, only Cuba does not have nuclear weapons. In theory, the U.S. and other western countries would have as much if not more reason to be concerned about countries who have never signed the agreement as they do about countries that did sign but now wish to develop nuclear programs.

But political reality is otherwise. Israel is regarded as a friendly country by the U.S. in a region where there is much anti-American sentiment. India is emerging as a major country and potential geo-political ally so the Bush Administration has indicated an interest in actually helping with India's program. Pakistan developed its program in response to India and its existence is now tolerated.

On the other hand, Iran and North Korea have ideological differences with the west and this is the real reason for U.S. concern. Today's Iran is essentially a Muslim theocracy which adamantly opposes many western customs and which has an antagonistic relationship with Israel. There is also much anti-American sentiment in Iran stemming from the brutality of the U.S.-supported Shah regime and subsequent developments.

How does Iran fit into to the Middle East picture?

Iran is a large country  (Click to see map) with a population of about 70 million. It is bordered on the west by Iraq and on the east by the Muslim countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Prior to 1991, Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union. It is not an Arab country. Over half of the population consists of ethnic Persians and 89% adhere to the stricter Shiite branch of the Muslim religion. In terms of human development, Iran like most Middle Eastern countries is in the middle range. The unemployment rate is over 10% and 40% of the population is beneath the poverty line.

How did the animosity arise between the U.S. and Iran?

The causes of the enmity arise from Iran's longstanding efforts to gain autonomy over its resources, the excesses of U.S. anti-Communist cold war policy, and Muslim disapproval of western culture.

    1. The overthrow of Mossadegh

    Because of its geography and resources, Iran was an important pawn in the cold war between the West and the nearby Soviet States. In 1951, the elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh aimed to end the foreign presence in Iran which had developed following the Second World War, especially regarding the exploitation of Iran's rich oil resources. After Mossadegh nationalized oil, an economic battle ensued between Britain and Iran. Mossadegh implemented more socialist changes as well. Iran's feudal agriculture sector was abolished, and replaced with a system of collective farming and government land ownership. Concerned about these developments, and the possibility that Iran would turn to the Soviets for economic and military support, the U.S. launched a plan to remove Mossadegh from power. The resulting CIA campaign involving the orchestration of civil unrest followed by a military coup is acknowledged to be a model covert operation; one that was repeated in Guatemala and later Chile. Mossadegh was ousted in 1953. The extent of the US role in Mossadegh's overthrow was not formally acknowledged for many years. When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, the overthrow of Mossadegh was used as a rallying point in anti-US protests.

    2. The Rule of the Shah

    In the aftermath of the coup, real political power was assumed by the titular monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He consolidated power by creating a secret police force, SAVAK (National Organization for Information and Security), infamous for its ruthless persecution of dissidents, and is believed to have overseen its operation personally. With considerable justification, Iranians today hold the U.S. responsible for the atrocities of SAVAK.

    Capitalizing on Iran's great oil wealth, the Shah's policies led to strong economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s. He made major changes to curb the power of certain ancient elite factions by expropriating large and middle- sized estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. He took a number of major modernization measures, including extending suffrage to women.

    Despite these accomplishments, opposition to his pro-Western rule increased. Many secular Iranians abhorred his autocratic anti-democratic rule. Moreover, his good relations with Israel and the United States and his active support for women's rights were a reason for fundamentalist Islamic groups to attack his policies.

    3. The Muslim Revolution and Hostage Crisis

    In 1979, massive civil unrest resulted in the Shah's abdication and the ascendancy of a clerical regime which controls Iran to this day. After leaving Iran, the Shah went to Egypt, then Morocco, the Bahamas, and Mexico. When his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma began to grow worse, and he arrived in the U.S. to obtain temporary medical treatment. His presence in the U.S. was bitterly opposed by the new Iranian government which demanded his return to Iran to face a show trial and execution. When the U.S. refused, government supported revolutionaries captured a number of American diplomats, military personnel and intelligence officers in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis. Although the Iranian government did not officially take responsibility for the kidnappings, their actions had the support of the religious government under the direction of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

    The hostage crisis lasted 444 days from November 1979 to January 1981. Two attempts to rescue the hostages failed. Finally, negotiations for their release conducted by the outgoing Carter administration were successful. Iran was more receptive to negotiations in late 1980 as the Shah had died and the country had been invaded by Iraq. The major concession by the U.S. in the negotiations is relevant to the current situation in that the U.S. pledged not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs.

    The hostage crisis produced lasting bitterness on both sides which remains to the present. In the U.S., the constant televised coverage of the hostages' plight provided a lasting impression that Iranians were uncivilized and controlled by irresponsible religious zealots. Iranians regarded the hostile American response to the matter as a sign that it still supported the repressive regime of the Shah.

    4. The Iran - Iraq War

    The turmoil in Iran coincided with Saddam Hussein's consolidation of power in neighboring Iraq. In 1980, Saddam seized the opportunity to attack Iran ostensibly because of a border dispute. The attack was completely unprovoked and led to an eight year war. At the very beginning of the war, Iraq gained some territory. But the war served as a unifying cause for the attacked Iranians who were well equipped with U.S. supplied military weaponry inherited from the Shah. When Iran recovered its occupied territory and began attacking Iraq, the international community and Arab states in particular began to support the Iraqi cause. The war ended when Iraq began to use chemical weapons to repulse Iranian advances. International antipathy to the Tehran regime meant Iraq suffered few repercussions despite these attacks. The UN eventually condemned Iraq for using chemical weapons against Iran, after the war. Chemical weapons had not been used in any major war since World War I.

    U.S., Russia and other nations helped supply Iraq with military assistance throughout the war. Washington came to the conclusion that Saddām was the lesser of the two evils, and hence efforts to support Iraq became the order of the day, both during the long war with Iran and afterward. But the U.S. also pursued policy of surreptitiously assisting Iran with weaponry, apparently believing that U.S. interests were best protected if the two middle east powers were fighting each other rather than focusing on Israel and the West. Estimates for Iranian casualties range from 450,000 to 950,000. In the aftermath, the Iranian economy was devastated. Nerve gas agents killed about 20,000 Iranian soldiers immediately, according to official reports. Of the 90,000 survivors, some 5,000 seek medical treatment regularly and about 1,000 are still hospitalized with severe, chronic conditions. Many others were hit by mustard gas.

    Despite the fact that the major blame for this war and its consequences rests clearly with Saddam Hussein, there is little understanding of this tragedy in the United States. The Iran-Iraq war was barely mentioned as among the justifications for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq even though it is probably Saddam Hussein's most significant and costly international transgression. From the Iranian viewpoint, the U.S. shares some responsibility for the war because of the military assistance provided to Iraq.

    5. Recent relations

    Not long after the Iran-Iraq war ended, Saddam Hussein launched a reckless and unprovoked takeover of Kuwait. This time the international response was immediate. Quite obviously, Iran welcomed this development but there has been no significant constructive effort by either the U.S. or Iran to repair the relationship during the past two decades. Iran has remained economically isolated from the west which has significantly hampered its economic development. Relations slowly improved with European countries which have been dependent on Iranian oil reserves but U.S. trade restrictions which affect multi-national companies still inhibit the full integration of Iran into the global economy.

    Following the election of a reformist president in the late 1990s, attempts to foster secular political reform in response to popular dissatisfaction floundered as conservative politicians prevented reform measures from being enacted, increased repressive measures, and made electoral gains against reformers. Parliamentary elections in 2004 and the August 2005 inauguration of a conservative stalwart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, completed the reconsolidation of conservative power in Iran's government.

What about relations between Iran and Israel? Hasn't Iran declared an intention to "wipe Israel off the map" and provided support to Palestinian terrorists?

Since the onset of the 1979 revolution, Iran has opposed the concept of an Israeli state in the Middle East and broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. But in comparison to its Arab neighbors, there is a much less natural basis for hostility. Iran and Israel do not share a common border and their respective national interests are not in fundamental collision with each other. In fact, Israel was involved in providing clandestine military assistance to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran is not an Arab country, and their affinity with the Palestinian cause is based solely on religion, not ethnicity. The apparent real basis for the present enmity between Israel and Iran is that Israel is a western style country that is perceived to represent U.S. interests in the region. In fact the "off the map" reference occurred during a speech when similar statements were made about the U.S.. It is true that Iran has provided financial support to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah party which is regarded as a terrorist organization by many western states but the operations of that organization are controlled by Arabs and its activities are based in Syria and Lebanon.

Is current U.S. policy regarding Iran related to the situation in neighboring Iraq?


Perhaps the sole benefit of Saddam's horrific rule was that it facilitated centralized government in a country with deep ethnic and religious divisions. Saddam's Baath party was dominated by the more secular Sunni Muslims who are a minority in Iraq. With the advent of the U.S.-imposed democracy, Shiite Muslims have the upper hand, but the U.S. and the fledging Iraqi government has its hands full with the Sunni insurgency. On the one hand, the U.S. wants to militarily control the insurgency but it also needs to address and protect Sunni and Kurdish interests to achieve a long term workable solution. Iran is a natural ally of the Iraqi Shiites and due to both religion and its enmity with the U.S., Iran is likely to support the Iraqi Shiites in rejecting a shared power solution.

What have been the key developments in the current nuclear crisis?

In September 2002 Russia began preparations for a reactor worth $800m near Iran's south-western port of Bushehr. The plan at this stage was to have the plant up and running by the end of 2003. In December 2002 the U.S. accused Iran of seeking to develop a secret nuclear weapons program and published satellite images of two additional nuclear sites under construction. In response, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted a series of inspections in Iran. Iran confirmed the sites but insisted that these - like Bushehr - were designed solely to provide fuel for future power plants. In June 2003 the IAEA completed its report on the inspections. The report indicated that Iran failed to meet its obligation to report certain nuclear materials and activities but did not declare Iran in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is noted that Iran was under no obligation to report the plants while they were still under construction. According to the terms of Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran was only required to formally inform the IAEA of those sites within 180-days prior to the introduction of fissile material in them.

In October 2003, Iran promised total transparency over the country's nuclear program during talks with Britain, France and Germany and the IAEA stated that Iran had submitted comprehensive declaration on its nuclear program. The IAEA stated that Iran admitted that it has produced plutonium - a material that could be used in nuclear weapons, but adds there is no evidence that the country is trying to build an atomic bomb.

Nevertheless, after pressure by Washington, Britain, France and Germany reached an agreement to support a UN resolution to warn Iran over its nuclear activities. In November 2003, the IAEA voted to censure Iran for its reporting lapses but did not recommend sanctions. In response to this pressure, Iran announced a voluntary and temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program in November 2004. The program was resumed in August 2005, after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The UN Security Council has in response issued an ultimatum ordering Iran to cease its nuclear enrichment program.

What is the likely outcome of the current impasse?

In recent months, U.S. officials have provided indications that military intervention is possible in Iran although such assertions are denied at the official level. It would seem that such threats are part of an effort to obtain diplomatic concessions. If so, the tactic as thus far been unsuccessful and instead has only appeared to strengthen the popularity of the Iranian regime's position within that country.

As far as the American public is concerned, it is clear that the attitude toward Iran is still colored by the hostage crisis. A majority believes that Iran will successfully develop nuclear weapons and almost half would support military intervention to halt Iranian nuclear activities.  (Click to see chart)   But in comparison to Iraq, there appears to be far less justification for military intervention. There has been no finding that Iran is in violation of its treaty agreements. Iran has no history of using weapons of mass destruction. On the contrary, they were victims of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weaponry. While intensely religious and nationalistic, its governmental processes allow for public participation. It is arguably more stable and less a harbor for terrorists than Pakistan, a country that refused to agree to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and which has developed a nuclear weapons program. The nuclear program in Iran is probably best compared to similar undertakings in Brazil. The difference is that the US trusts Brazilian declarations of peaceful intent but does not trust similar Iranian declarations.

Iran's leaders appear to have calculated that they can withstand the diplomatic pressure they are likely to face in the coming months from the United States, the Europeans, and many members of the IAEA, and that even if sanctions are imposed, Iran has the will and financial resources to ride them out.


Iran Links

PBS Iran Nuclear Coverage and Links

Council on Foreign Relations: Iran Coverage

Nuclear Program of Iran - Wikipedia

United States-Iran relations - Wikipedia

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - Wikipedia

Iran-Iraq War - Wikipedia

Iran Hostage Crisis - Wikipedia

Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses (Congressional Research Service, April 2011)

Iran's Nuclear Program (three part extensive analysis by Mohammad Sahimi, Professor & Chairman of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, University of Southern California in Los Angeles)

Oxford Research Group - Iran's Nuclear Activities



(click to enlarge)

Public Opinion on Iraq and Nuclear Weapons

Iran Map and Statistics