Lacking direct evidence, Bush administration officials argue that
Iran's nuclear program must be a cover for bomb-making. Vice President Cheney
recently said, "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody
can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy."
Yet Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and outgoing Deputy
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz held key national security posts when the Ford
administration made the opposite argument 30 years ago.
Ford's team endorsed Iranian plans to build a massive nuclear energy
industry, but also worked hard to complete a multibillion-dollar deal that would
have given Tehran control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium
-- the two pathways to a nuclear bomb. Either can be shaped into the core of a
nuclear warhead, and obtaining one or the other is generally considered the most
significant obstacle to would-be weapons builders.
Iran, a U.S. ally then, had deep pockets and close ties to Washington.
U.S. companies, including Westinghouse and General Electric, scrambled to do
"I don't think the issue of proliferation came up," Henry A. Kissinger,
who was Ford's secretary of state, said in an interview for this article.
The U.S. offer, details of which appear in declassified documents
reviewed by The Washington Post, did not include the uranium enrichment
capabilities Iran is seeking today. But the United States tried to accommodate
Iranian demands for plutonium reprocessing, which produces the key ingredient of
After balking initially, President Gerald R. Ford signed a directive in
1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing
facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The deal was for a
complete "nuclear fuel cycle" -- reactors powered by and regenerating fissile
materials on a self-sustaining basis.
That is precisely the ability the current administration is trying to
prevent Iran from acquiring today.
"If we were facing an Iran with a reprocessing capability today, we
would be even more concerned about their ability to use plutonium in a nuclear
weapon," said Corey Hinderstein, a nuclear specialist with the Institute for
Science and International Security. "These facilities are well understood and
can be safeguarded, but it would provide another nuclear option for Iran."
Nuclear experts believe the Ford strategy was a mistake. As Iran went
from friend to foe, it became clear to subsequent administrations that Tehran
should be prevented from obtaining the technologies for building weapons. But
that is not the argument the Bush administration is making. Such an argument
would be unpopular among parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which
guarantees members access to nuclear power regardless of their political
The U.S.-Iran deal was shelved when the shah was toppled in the 1979
revolution that led to the taking of American hostages and severing of
Despite the changes in Iran, now run by a clerical government, the
country's public commitment to nuclear power and its insistence on the legal
right to develop it have remained the same. Iranian officials reiterated the
position last week at a conference on nuclear energy in Paris.
Mohammad Saeidi, a vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of
Iran, told the conference that Iran was determined to develop nuclear power
since oil and natural gas supplies were limited.
U.S. involvement with Iran's nuclear program until 1979, which
accompanied large-scale intelligence-sharing and conventional weapons sales,
highlights the boomerang in U.S. foreign policy. Even with many key players in
common, the U.S. government has taken opposite positions on questions of fact as
its perception of U.S. interests has changed.
Using arguments identical to those made by the shah 30 years ago, Iran
says its nuclear program is essential to meet growing energy requirements, and
is not intended for bombs. Tehran revived the program in secret, its officials
say, to prevent the United States from trying to stop it. Iran's account is
under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is trying
to determine whether Iran also has a parallel nuclear weapons program.
Since the energy program was exposed, in 2002, the Bush administration
has alternately said that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program or wants
one. Without being able to prove those claims, the White House has made its case
by implication, beginning with the point that Iran has ample oil reserves for
its energy needs.
Ford's team commended Iran's decision to build a massive nuclear energy
industry, noting in a declassified 1975 strategy paper that Tehran needed to
"prepare against the time -- about 15 years in the future -- when Iranian oil
production is expected to decline sharply."
Estimates of Iran's oil reserves were smaller then than they are now,
but energy experts and U.S. intelligence estimates continue to project that Iran
will need an alternative energy source in the coming decades. Iran's population
has more than doubled since the 1970s, and its energy demands have increased
The Ford administration -- in which Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld as chief
of staff and Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation issues at the Arms
Control and Disarmament Agency -- continued intense efforts to supply Iran with
U.S. nuclear technology until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford in
That history is absent from major Bush administration speeches, public
statements and news conferences on Iran.
In an opinion piece on Iran in The Post on March 9, Kissinger wrote
that "for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of
resources." White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited the article during a
news briefing, saying that it reflected the administration's current thinking on
In 1975, as secretary of state, Kissinger signed and circulated
National Security Decision Memorandum 292, titled "U.S.-Iran Nuclear
Cooperation," which laid out the administration's negotiating strategy for the
sale of nuclear energy equipment projected to bring U.S. corporations more than
$6 billion in revenue. At the time, Iran was pumping as much as 6 million
barrels of oil a day, compared with an average of about 4 million barrels daily
The shah, who referred to oil as "noble fuel," said it was too valuable
to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction
of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and
free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."
Asked why he reversed his opinion, Kissinger responded with some
surprise during a brief telephone interview. After a lengthy pause, he said:
"They were an allied country, and this was a commercial transaction. We didn't
address the question of them one day moving toward nuclear weapons."
Charles Naas, who was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iran in the 1970s, said
proliferation was high in the minds of technical experts, "but the nuclear deal
was attractive in terms of commerce, and the relationship as a whole was very
Documents show that U.S. companies, led by Westinghouse, stood to gain
$6.4 billion from the sale of six to eight nuclear reactors and parts. Iran was
also willing to pay an additional $1 billion for a 20 percent stake in a private
uranium enrichment facility in the United States that would supply much of the
uranium to fuel the reactors.
Naas said Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld all were in positions to play
significant roles in Iran policy then, "but in those days, you have to view
Kissinger as the main figure." Requests for comment from the offices of Cheney,
Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld went unanswered.
"It is absolutely incredible that the very same players who made those
statements then are making completely the opposite ones now," said Joseph
Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. "Do they remember that they said this? Because the Iranians
sure remember that they said it," said Cirincione, who just returned from a
nuclear conference in Tehran -- a rare trip for U.S. citizens now.
In what Cirincione described as "the worst idea imaginable," the Ford
administration at one point suggested joint Pakistani-Iranian reprocessing as a
way of promoting "nonproliferation in the region," because it would cut down on
the need for additional reprocessing facilities.
Gary Sick, who handled nonproliferation issues under presidents Ford,
Carter and Reagan, said the entire deal was based on trust. "That's the bottom
"The shah made a big convincing case that Iran was going to run out of
gas and oil and they had a growing population and a rapidly increasing demand
for energy," Sick said. "The mullahs make the same argument today, but we don't
Researcher Robert E. Thomason and staff writer Justin
Blum contributed to this report.