Mr. Pahlavi lent the French government more than a billion dollars to build a commercial enrichment facility in France to supply nuclear fuel to power plants in Iran, France, Italy, Belgium and Spain. But that consortium, known as Eurodif, never gave Iran the nuclear fuel. In 1979, religious revolutionaries overthrew Mr. Pahlavi. At first, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared nuclear power to be “un-Islamic” and withdrew from the project. Later, clerics had a change of heart and sought the fuel, but Eurodif refused to provide it. Eventually, Iran built its own uranium enrichment facility in secret.
Reports suggest that Iran’s nuclear program was revived in 1984, after an invasion by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader who had a nuclear weapons program of his own. The bloody eight-year war with Iraq killed at least 300,000 Iranians, including many who died horrible deaths from chemical weapons. But the international community sided with Saddam Hussein — an outrage Iranians never forgot. It was during this war that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was formed. Iranian scientists like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — who was assassinated last year — dedicated themselves to developing Iran’s indigenous defenses.
After the Iran-Iraq war ended, a moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, was elected on promises to improve relations with the West. In 1995, Iran struck a deal with Conoco, a U.S. oil company, to develop one of its largest oil fields. But the Clinton administration killed the deal by banning nearly all American trade and investment in Iran, and threatening sanctions against foreign companies that invested there.
Iran’s nuclear program inched forward anyway. In 2002, Iran’s clandestine enrichment facility became international news. The international blowback, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year, shook the Iranian regime. In 2003, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment work and halted most weapons-related development. An Iranian official also prepared a sweeping proposal for U.S.-Iranian talks over a wide range of issues, including the nuclear program, Iran’s posture toward American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for Palestinian terrorist groups. But the Bush administration scoffed at the idea of direct talks and signaled Iran might be next on its regime-change list. Two years later, Iranians elected a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president who pressed ahead with Iran’s uranium enrichment program. By the end of Mr. Bush’s second term in office, Iran was on its way to mastering enrichment.
Analysts disagree about why Iran has been willing to spend so heavily on a nuclear program that it claims is peaceful. Some view it as a matter of national pride. The more the Americans insisted that Iran should not have nuclear technology — or even nuclear knowledge — the more the nuclear program became a symbol of self-reliance and resistance to Western imperialism. Others see the program as Iran’s only bargaining chip in the effort to remove sanctions, some of which have been in place for decades. Still others believe that the Iranian regime needs a nuclear weapon — or at least the option of building one — to survive domestic unrest and intense geopolitical rivalries. The grisly death of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was overthrown with American help after he gave up his weapons program, serves as an unfortunate cautionary tale.
In 2015, the United States and Iran achieved a diplomatic breakthrough after the Obama administration conceded that Iran could enrich uranium on its own soil if it agreed to robust inspections and other measures to make sure its activities remained peaceful. The deal was flawed, but bought time to test the limits of diplomacy. But in 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, and slapped Iran with the most expansive sanctions to date, which have made it hard for ordinary Iranians to purchase medicine and food. As expansive as those sanctions are, they haven’t stopped Iran from marching forward on its nuclear program. That suggests that external forces can slow Iran’s program but not stop it. The only sure way to halt Iran’s nuclear progress is to convince Iranians that they have more to gain from taking the path of South Africa than the path of North Korea.