A Dubious Purchase: Iran’s Nuclear Program

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran has come under international scrutiny for its human rights violations, nuclear programs, land mines, and censorship. Finding it difficult to procure necessary equipment for its nuclear program, the government turned to civilians for obtaining necessary parts.


| May 2017



Iranian flag

Iran turned to its citizens when the government could not obtain nuclear equipment on the international market.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Luzitanija

Until We Are Free (Random House, 2016), by Shirin Ebadi, recounts the author’s persecution and investigation by the Iranian government. The following excerpt from chapter three (“The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Centrifuge”) tells the story of how a government agent and an American attempted to lure her into buying a nuclear centrifuge under the guise of solving Iran’s land mine problem.

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In most Iranian cities there is at least one artificial limb shop, for the country has the second highest number of land mines in the world studded into its soil. An estimated sixteen million mines are left over from the war with Iraq, waiting to explode beneath an unsuspecting farmer or child. The government has not done nearly enough to address the land mine problem, and to cover up this neglect it also censors news coverage of land mine deaths and mutilations. As a result, most Iranians who live outside the worst-afflicted regions have little idea that their country harbors such dangers.

This is why I established the Mine Clearing Collaboration Association, the first such NGO in Iran. My primary aim was to make land mines a daily topic; in my experience, when a fringe problem becomes a national problem that people are aware of and discuss in daily conversations, solutions emerge, and pressure also mounts on the government to take some action. The state could pursue mine removal more seriously, and it could also join the Ottawa Convention, which demands that states halt the production and deployment of land mines. Another aim of the organization was to  provide  financial help to the injured and wounded, as many of the hardest-hit areas are also quite poor, and the cost of the prosthetics themselves, along with the loss of the ability to work, can be devastating for families. Gradually the Iranian public became more exposed to the issue. The problem in the ground had become a problem on people’s minds, and I was hopeful that the government would start dealing more proactively with mine removal.

On a cloudy afternoon in February 2004, a middle-aged man came to my personal law office, on the ground floor of my apartment building, and identified himself as a government official. He was accompanied by a man he introduced as an American colleague, a professor from Stanford University. I offered both of them a cup of tea and some raisin cookies, and the official explained to me in detail how the government was deeply committed to tackling the land mine crisis; however, he noted, serious obstacles had emerged around the procurement of advanced mine-removal equipment. The most technologically effective demining tools, he said, qualified as “dual-use” goods, meaning that Iran could also use them for military purposes, and therefore international sanctions made it impossible for the state to import such devices. He insisted that this challenge was at the core of the government’s difficulties in removing mines.

I listened patiently, leaning into the  beige floral upholstery of the armchair, wondering where the conversation would lead. The man stated that he had long-standing expertise in demining and that he had personally designed a device that would work effectively to detect mines on the desert terrain of Iran’s western provinces.