Shane J. Maddock: Obama’s Course Correction on Iran

Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the PresentToday we welcome a guest blog post from Shane J. Maddock, author of Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the PresentAfter World War II, an atomic hierarchy emerged in the noncommunist world. Washington was at the top, followed over time by its NATO allies and then Israel, with the postcolonial world completely shut out. An Indian diplomat called the system “nuclear apartheid.” Maddock provides an illuminating look at how an American nuclear policy based on misguided ideological beliefs has unintentionally paved the way for an international “wild west” of nuclear development, dramatically undercutting the goal of nuclear containment and diminishing U.S. influence in the world.

In today’s post, Maddock relates the troubled history of U.S.-Iranian relations and the U.S. foreign policy steps that contributed to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program.


On January 20, 2014, an interim agreement to curtail the Iranian nuclear program went into effect. The clock then began ticking on the six-month deadline to conclude a permanent agreement between Iran, the United States, and five other powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China).

Some analysts have contended that such an agreement could pave the way for an end to Iran’s three-and-a-half-decade estrangement with the West and lead to security cooperation between the United States and Iran in the Middle East and South Central Asia. For many, the verdict was clear: sanctions worked, and some in Congress continue to advocate the threat of further sanctions to goad Tehran into signing a permanent agreement that forces it to abandon all nuclear activity. But much of this discussion ignores how past American miscues helped foster the Iranian nuclear program and how Washington has squandered previous opportunities to mend relations with Tehran.

The roots of the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program lay in the late 1960s. The Johnson administration agreed to provide the Shah of Iran with a five-megawatt nuclear research reactor and highly enriched uranium to fuel it. That reactor provided the seed from which the rest of the Iranian nuclear program grew.

The Johnson administration also bequeathed another headache to future U.S. policymakers. In its attempts to get non-nuclear-weapons states to accede to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968, the administration pledged to make peaceful nuclear technologies available to all states without discrimination. Iran has used these pledges to claim that every state has a right to enrich uranium, although many experts contend that the treaty provides no such guarantee.

But these miscues are easier to discern in hindsight than they were at the time. More recent errors were less excusable and have played a larger role in delaying U.S.-Iranian reconciliation.

U.S.-Iranian relations initially seemed to improve when the Afghan war began in 2001. Tehran viewed both the Taliban and al Qaeda as threats and quietly cooperated with Washington during the Afghan invasion. But cooperation turned to confrontation when President Bush labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 left Tehran pinned between U.S. military expeditions on its eastern and western borders. The American threat escalated when the Bush administration accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons. The moderate president Mohammed Khatami offered to negotiate, and he allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. But Washington actively undercut a European-brokered agreement for suspension of the Iranian uranium enrichment program. As the political pendulum swung away from the moderates toward the new hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran began blustering about its nuclear prowess and refused to abandon its right to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.

Much of the evidence now available suggests the Bush administration threats reinvigorated a moribund program. A Central Intelligence Agency report contended that Iran had abandoned its weapons program. But after the Bush administration scuttled diplomatic agreements regarding the Iranian program, hardliners took control and argued that Iran needed a nuclear weapon to deter a potential U.S. or Israeli military attack. They argued that Iraq had abandoned its nuclear ambitions under pressure from the West and reaped a brutal invasion for its efforts. North Korea, on the other hand, thwarted Western efforts to end its nuclear weapons program and avoided Baghdad’s fate. Arguments that at least the threat of a nuclear weapon was necessary took on greater persuasiveness given that U.S. military deployments sandwiched Iranian territory.

From this perspective, sanctions alone might not be sufficient to explain Iran’s recent willingness to seek agreement with the West. The security environment has also changed and undercut the hardliners’ case. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq over two years ago and the current Iraqi government has forged a cooperative relationship with Tehran. In 2013, the Karzai government in Afghanistan also concluded a security agreement with Iran. With the regional threat to Iran reduced, the domestic political environment swung in favor of more moderate leaders, resulting in election of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in late 2013.

Viewing the course of U.S.-Iranian relations from this perspective makes arguments for further sanctions extremely dubious. Reducing threats and hostile actions helped chart the new course, and blustering from congressional hawks would merely scuttle any hopes for a permanent and stable end to the nuclear standoff with Tehran.

Shane J. Maddock is professor of history at Stonehill College. He is coauthor of American Foreign Relations: A History and editor of The Nuclear Age.  His book Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present is now available in paperback.