The Nuclear Pyramid of the Islamic Republic

Iran has squandered billions on a nuclear program that has impoverished its people and hastened ecological disaster.

Iranian workers stand in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, about 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour.

The nuclear program has shaped Iranian life for generations. It began in 1959 under the last shah of Iran, and has become a holy grail for the Islamic Republic to gain political leverage in the region and beyond. Within Iranian domestic politics, it has figured into political horse-trading, with reformists and conservatives fighting over a potential rapprochement with the West and which of the two regime factions shall seek it.

Catchy yet empty slogans have been drilled into Iranians’ heads. The nuclear program has been characterized as their “inalienable right”. Photos of diplomats sitting at a negotiation table over and over again, with a generation of Europeans and Americans as diverse as Javier Solana‎, Jack Straw, John Kerry, Catherine Ashton, Federica Mogherini, among others, have been etched in their memories. All the while ordinary people have been facing years of economic hardship. In short, different iterations of the nuclear program have determined their lives and ultimately deteriorated their livelihoods.

Yet, Iranians’ dire situation because of a nuclear program received little attention in the Western mainstream media, which focuses instead on two extremes: Iran’s claims of having a peaceful program and Israel’s strict warnings that Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Western governments have been attempting to reach a compromise between the contradicting claims for nearly twenty years. What has been lost in this framework, and also in the geopolitical rivalries and the diplomatic negotiations, is the impact of such a program on ordinary people.

Now, with the unprecedented Iranian revolutionary uprising entering its second month, there are some discussions about the alleged necessity to immediately pursue the revival of the JCPOA in order to alleviate Iranians’ economic misery. When it comes to the economic woes, a key narrative has been established on “sanctions” in the mainstream media and among foreign-policy pundits, according to which to a large extent Iran’s misfortune goes directly back to U.S. policies. This simplistic and superficial view about sanctions overlooks two simple facts: first, it ignores the complicated distribution of wealth and power in the mafia-like political economy of post-revolutionary Iran, which is the root cause of Iranians’ hardship. The U.S. sanctions, in this regard, served as merely a catalyst for the deep-seated sufferings. In other words, the authoritarian state’s externalization of the sanctions’ costs—both discursively and materially—onto the civilian population is a key factor that is ignored here. Second, the said narrative fails to recognize that the economic difficulties are deepened primarily by pursuing an irrational nuclear program rather than the sanctions. The latter has been a byproduct of the former. A critical examination of Iran’s nuclear program would suggest that even peaceful nuclear enrichment seems incompatible with the economic capacity of Iran.

An Atomic Dream

Historically, it was Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s ambitious plan to launch a nuclear power program—viewed then by many in the Global South as a premier prestige project serving as supreme evidence for rapidly climbing up the ladder of development and modernization—in order to become a full-blown regional gendarme. When he was asked about his intention, according to Akbar Etemad, the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) between 1974 and 1978, the shah had contemplated about Iran becoming a nuclear-weapon state, thereby satisfying the shah’s great-power ambitions. Despite the United States’ reluctance to support Iran’s nuclear activities, the program was launched in 1974, and the first European negotiation took place in 1976 in Tehran between West Germany and Iran to discuss the prospect of nuclear science and technological exports.

The cunning of history resides in the fact that the Islamic Republic turned out to realize the shah’s atomic dream. The government that took power after the 1979 Revolution was initially skeptical about the nuclear program. A two-part article in Jomhuri Eslami, the official daily of the ruling Islamist party, on June 16, 1979 entitled “The Nuclear Power Plants: A Clear Treason to our Nation” states that there are probably no significant resources of uranium in Iran and that to pursue such a plan would make the government dependent on Western supplies. Later, however, the nuclear program was reconsidered in the context of the Iraq–Iran War and the consequent energy crisis. Iran’s sole nuclear power plant in Bushehr, in the country’s southwest, was also destroyed by air strikes during the eight-year war.

Toward the end of the war, Iran began to recuperate the nuclear program by a failed attempt at clandestine nuclear cooperation with Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan. It was resurrected, however, with the aid of Russia during the 1990s and the enrichment program continued behind the scenes. Once it came to public notice in 2002, the Islamic Republic characterized it as a matter of life and death. Since then, it has not left the Iranian political scene for some twenty years.

For an unbiased observer, it has turned into a conundrum: why would Tehran insist on pursuing a contentious program like this while it has been facing economic and political headwinds? What has it gained over the last twenty years save for sanctions and isolation? What was it supposed to fulfill if not the prosperity and well-being of Iranians? Why was it so vital for the Islamic Republic to have an atomic program in the first place?

A Useless yet Visible Program

The nuclear program seems to function very much like a pyramid in a novel by Ismail Kadare under the same title. In 1992, the Albanian writer, back from his exile in Paris, published a political parable of an ancient Pharaoh, Cheops, who strangely decides to avoid constructing yet another pyramid, as it is a poignant reminder of the inevitability of death. Dismayed by his unwillingness, his court sages push back against the idea by explaining the significance of having a pyramid in the old pharaonic tradition. More than being a tomb for the pharaoh, it helps cement his rule and preserve his power by making people poor and compliant, thus keeping them under control: “[A] pyramid is power. It is repression, force, and wealth. But it is just as much domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste. O my Pharaoh, it is your most reliable guardian. Your secret police. Your army. Your fleet.”

They point out different scenarios in the pyramid stead inspected by Cheops’ predecessors to subjugate Egyptians: a bottomless pit to be dug in the earth, an artificial natural disaster such as temporarily drying up the Nile and destroying farmlands, or triggering a war with neighboring countries. None of these proposals had legs, as Egypt could have lost the war or the ecological disturbance might have spun out of control and undermined the very pharaonic rule they sought to underpin. The only plan that had the political firepower lay within building a pyramid, infinite yet finite in nature, useless yet visible project, “something that would destroy body and soul,” something that would exhaust all the county’s material resources.

The nuclear program, a project as useless as pyramid-building in the pharaonic tradition, has played the same role for the Islamic Republic. While no political or economic contribution was made for the nation, it has instead depleted its resources down to fumes. No herculean program could have dragged the country into misery and isolation for two decades more than the nuclear one did. There exists no economic, political, or environmental rationale behind the pursuit of the nuclear program in Iran.

Economically, it has devastated the country directly and indirectly. The irrationality of such a program stems directly from several factors. Iran’s uranium resources are far short of the Bushehr nuclear reactor’s need and the same limited resources have a low quality, thereby raising the costs to process them. The necessary intricate technology for uranium enrichment, something Iran lacked, and the economic fallout of achieving that, also defies the rationality of following a full nuclear fuel cycle self-sufficiently—from extracting uranium ore to conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication for nuclear reactors. Add to this the high-cost clandestine nature of nuclear facilities in Iran, being built underground and equipped with anti-aircraft systems. Moreover, there have been collateral propaganda costs as well as indirect damages caused by ongoing sanctions implemented every now and then during the past twenty years. A 2013 study of the program’s cost indicates at least $100 billion lost in the form of oil revenues and foreign investments, while the price tag of the nuclear facilities themselves has been more than $30 billion, as reported by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2018.

Despite the fact that the exact costs of the enrichment program and full nuclear fuel cycle are unknown to the public, some assessments suggest uranium processing and fuel fabrication in Iran is likely to be ten times the cost of a comparable fare in the international market. In a globalized world, it seems reasonable for a country to be dependent on others for something that it lacks such as the raw materials for nuclear power generation. The staggering costs of gaining nuclear technology, thus, appeared to be nonsensical. It contained abundant by-products/negative externalities, uneconomical and redundant for Iranians, given their nation’s vast oil, gas, and solar resources. For the sake of comparison, the initial investment for one nuclear power plant equals the building of eight gas power plants within even a shorter period of time.

An anecdote from Vladimir Putin, told by Ahmad Shirzad, a former MP, at a University of Tehran roundtable in December 2014, makes the same point. Visiting Tehran, Putin once said in a conversation with the Islamic Republic’s officials that uranium enrichment in Iran feels like manufacturing shoes for the purpose of a single family.

There are also environmental perils of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the very beginning of extracting uranium ore to the disposal of radioactive waste. The nuclear industry is an exceptionally thirsty and water-polluting one. The uranium mining, milling, and enrichment devour a massive amount of water, and to do so in a land grappling with water shortage seems reckless, to say the least. There exists also the specter of a nuclear disaster à la Chernobyl. Located at the intersection of three tectonic plates, the Bushehr power plant is prone to strong seismic activity. And as Iran’s nuclear activities are done secretly with no transparent media coverage, the extent of the dangers can only be gauged from official accounts, which likely understate the risks and damages. Given the sheer irresponsibility of the Islamic Republic, from a lack of transparency and repression of opposing discourse to resource mismanagement, any nuclear disaster would have lingering effects for decades.

A Political Cudgel

For much too long, the nuclear program has been sugar-coated as an indispensable project toward energy self-sufficiency and a substitute for fossil fuels—an environment-friendly fuel that can replace Iran’s ultimately finite oil and gas resources. Neither is the case. The latter is rejected by the idea of Iran, which has an annual average of 300 sunny days a year, simply using solar energy. The former, on the other hand, is put into question by the enormous cost of enriching uranium—not to mention the fact that Iran’s small 1,000 megawatt capacity reactor in Bushehr accounts for only about 1.5 percent of Iran’s electricity generation, at the same time that 15 percent of its power generation is wasted due to old infrastructure in need of the same generous investment that the nuclear program currently receives.

Billions of dollars have been invested in the nuclear project, plus endless bragging about Iran’s technological achievements, yet the ordinary people still suffer from power outages in summers and gas shortages in winters. The same Bushehr facility, which took thirty-five years to build and saw a two-decade delay at the hands of Russia’s Rosatom, is still being Russian-operated and fueled. Self-sufficiency does not seem to rule out Russia; instead the Kremlin has been absorbed as part of the Islamic Republic’s “selfhood”. The same republic whose revolution was meant to free itself from great-power tutelage.

Had Iran been eager to implement its nuclear “inalienable right”, it could have bought enriched uranium from others at a lower cost with much less environmental degradation. Canada, for instance, despite having the world’s largest deposits of high-grade uranium, exports natural uranium and buys it back enriched. Nonetheless, the nuclear program was as much about an “inalienable right” for the Islamic Republic as Cheops’ prospective pyramid in Kadare’s novel was a true monument of immortality.

It’s been turned into a political cudgel by the Islamic Republic. Its opponents and critics have been silenced for speaking out against this “inalienable right” of the Iranian nation. Movies, television series, and songs were produced to provoke national sentiments and condemn the conspiracies of the enemies to sabotage the quasi-holy program. In a music video, to name but one, by the controversial Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo, released a day before the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, we are told that “no power can prevent the Iranian nation from having peaceful nuclear energy.” Once a satanic singer who had been arrested by the government several times, he was given an unprecedented pulpit, standing on the deck of a warship, to send a clear message: “This is our absolute right/To be heavily armed in the Persian Gulf.”

Being baked into the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric, the nuclear program was thus elevated to a national-security affair against which no public discourse could gain legitimacy. Journalists were not allowed to raise questions about its environmental stakes or where the country would be heading, politically and economically, by insisting on an arguably irrational program like this.

A laundry list of other “inalienable rights” of Iranians have been sidelined by the nuclear pyramid: their right to have access to clean water for which Khuzestan, Iran’s oil-rich province in the southwest, continues to simmer; their right to breathe clean air, of which many metropolises have been deprived for years, as a result of refined diesel and mazut used by Iran’s monopolistic automaker Iran Khodro; their right to a decent job and a minimum wage from which half of the population are prevented due to a stagnant economy and unfettered clientelistic privatization; their right to natural resources like lakes and rivers that have dried up as a result of excessive dam construction by the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); their right to smooth public transportation, internet access, freedom of speech, freedom of association; and their right not to wear the compulsory hijab.

Instead, the nuclear pyramid effectively helped people being gripped by poverty and destitution, yet maintain the ruling élite in power. The irony is that not only did the Islamic Republic construct its nuclear pyramid, it also embarked on other proposals examined by the ancient pharaohs: engaging in a war with neighboring countries, be it proxy wars like the one in Yemen or its regional interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as bringing about a natural catastrophe by disturbing the regular flow of the rivers and drying up many of them.

Rather than engineering a united front to denuclearize Israel (which holds the Middle East’s nuclear weapons monopoly) and doing away with nuclear weapons altogether, Iran’s nuclear activities have provoked a nuclear arms race. It adds a worrisome dimension to already existing regional rivalries, particularly in a region vulnerable to the effects of climate change where political cooperation is much needed to overcome the environmental threats. In fact, the Islamic Republic has used “nuclear diplomacy” and nuclear escalation to create a strategic advantage in its dealings with the West. It has done so by erecting the threat of a “nuclear Iran” to be opportunistically deployed in its foreign policy as a way to create alarmism in Western capitals, so that the latter rush to the nuclear negotiation table and offer Tehran maximum concessions. Imposing this nuclear lens onto the international community, the Islamic Republic has effectively sidelined all other areas of discord, namely its domestic politics, human rights issues, regional policies and non-nuclear military means (missiles, drones).

In an ailing economy where environmental crises like drought and water shortage should have been prioritized financially, the material resources earmarked for Iran’s atomic ventures, regional adventures, and its propaganda machine are astronomical in comparison. The result is a country that lurches from crisis to crisis, suffering under the shadow of its nuclear pyramid. It’s been imposed by a regime to which the current Iranian uprising has been responding by an unequivocal “no”. If it succeeds to put an end to the Islam Republic, its nuclear pyramid would eventually collapse.