But the shah wanted more than a nuclear toy. He had grandiose plans for a network of 23 nuclear power reactors by the 1990s, with much of the equipment purchased from US suppliers. And as recently declassified documents make clear, the course of nuclear negotiations between the shah and an array of US officials was far from smooth.
US worries were like those of today: Officials thought it possible that Iran would build on nuclear power programs to develop weapons technology.
"An aggressive successor to the Shah might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran's complete military dominance of the region," noted the memo.
The shah became increasingly irritated as a series of US presidents objected to his desire to reprocess spent reactor fuel on Iranian soil. He viewed this as a national right granted him under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran had signed in 1968. "He had a nationalist perspective that had some parallels with [Iran's position] today," says Dr. William Burr, director of nuclear history documentation at the National Security Archive.
The two sides squabbled for years over how much control the US would retain over Iran's nuclear efforts. American officials didn't really think the shah wanted nuclear weapons, at least right away. But they worried he wanted to preserve that option. When US scientists toured the site of Iran's planned Esfehan Nuclear Technology Center, they noticed that it was unusually large. Seven miles east of a population center, located between two mountains, the site was geographically reminiscent of a US facility. "One member of the ... team commented on the similarity of this location to the US Sandia Weapons Laboratory location," noted a cable from the US Embassy back to Washington.