Continuity or change? The West and the nuclear program of Iran from the 1970s to the present

This research project examines diachronically the development of the Iranian nuclear programme and, in particular, the evolving relationship between Iran and the West (Western Europe and the USA).

The key questions which the project revolves around are:

  • To what extent can a more comprehensive understanding of Iran's quest for Western nuclear power technologies, and the Western responses to it, explain the western role in current nuclear negotiations with Iran?
  • How have the US and Western European stances converged and diverged over time?
  • Can we see elements of continuity and change in Western responses to Iranian nuclear ambitions?

Purpose and aims

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have become the epicenter of one of the major global crises of recent years. While close attention has been paid to the Iranian nuclear program in the post-revolutionary era, Tehran’s initial quest for nuclear power technologies dates back in the 1970s. It began in the years preceding the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sought to establish a full-fledged nuclear power industry, as part of his ambition to turn Iran into a powerful modern state. As nuclear negotiations with the Shah's primary ally, the United States, progressed slowly due to American proliferation concerns, in 1974 the newly created Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) concluded nuclear deals with Western European countries.

The main purpose of this research is to explore the background of Iran's relations with the West; to analyze diachronically both the nuclear cooperation between Iran and Western Europe and the more complex relationship between Iran and the US. In doing so, the project is intended to explore continuity and change in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. 

Drawing on Western official and private papers, historical archives, oral histories, interviews with past and current negotiators or diplomats, and an extensive research on media sources, this research project tries to explore the historical rootedness, as well as the elements of rupture, in the interaction between the West and Iran vis a vis the latter’s nuclear ambitions.


Project Coordinator: Vittorio Felci