The on-going diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is a widely debated security issue. However, less attention has been paid to how Iran’s nuclear program went from tight civilian nuclear collaboration with Western countries in the past to today’s situation of almost total isolation. This shift presents a knowledge gap this thesis has sought to explore. The research question which has guided this analysis is:
How did Iran go from pursuing mainly civilian nuclear assistance under the Shah’s regime, towards an increasingly covert strategy combining sensitive and non-sensitive nuclear assistance from states and black market providers through the 1980s and 1990s?
Through a careful examination of all nuclear assistance Iran sought and received from 1976 to 2002 I have shown how Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy became increasingly covert, sensitive and uncompromising throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Iran increasingly pursued sensitive nuclear assistance from various sources, engaged in secret activities and sales deals, as well as failed in a number of instances to live up to its safeguard obligations. The similarities between Iran’s nuclear path in this period and the “typical path of nuclear aspiring states” have made scholars and policymakers jump to the conclusion that Iran was building a secret nuclear weapons program. I do not reject that nuclear weapons ambitions played a role per se, but I find that the omission of other factors, which have influenced the direction of Iran’s nuclear path, has led to an overestimation of the nuclear weapons aspect. For instance, the importance of national pride in Iranian nuclear decision-making has been neglected in the literature. The Iranian decision to pursue the whole nuclear fuel cycle can also be interpreted as a question of international and regional prestige. Also, the military, diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran through the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the strengthening of export controls in the same period may have determined the direction of Iran’s nuclear path. The emphasis on these partially neglected factors aims to sharpen the understanding of Iran’s nuclear behaviour, and provide alternative explanations to the current view manifested around the idea of Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions.