Teaching with the News

Good Atoms or Bad Atoms?
Iran and the Nuclear Issue


In this lesson students will:


Day 1

Videos: Iran’s Nuclear Program

Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue

Day 2

Options for U.S. Policy

Options: Graphic Organizer

Note: This lesson contains several components, broken up over the course of two class periods. You may wish to extend the lesson over an additional class period.

Day 1

1. Introduction

Ask students what they know about nuclear weapons. Which countries have them? Who has used them? Why might some countries want nuclear weapons? Why might others not want them? Have students heard about Iran and its nuclear program in the news recently?

2. Exploring Nuclear Weapons and Iran

Explain to students that they will be viewing videos that will introduce the topics of nuclear weapons, the history of U.S.-Iran relations, and the current international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. Distribute Videos: Iran’s Nuclear Program and instruct students to fill it in as they watch the videos.

Note: The handout is divided into three parts with corresponding videos listed below. You may wish to review students’ responses after they complete each part of the handout as opposed to addressing the class discussion questions in the following section all at once.

Part I: Introducing Nuclear Weapons

Why are some countries allowed to have nuclear weapons and others not? [Joseph Cirincione - 1:54]

What are the dangers of nuclear weapons? [Joseph Cirincione - 1:51]

Why are nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation important? [Joseph Cirincione - 1:13]

Part II: The United States and Iran—A History of Tension

What major historical events have shaped relations between Iran and the United States? [Jo-Anne Hart - 2:47]

Part III: Iran’s Nuclear Program and Recent Negotiations

What is the history of Iran’s nuclear program? [Joseph Cirincione - 2:20]

How could you prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons? [Joseph Cirincione - 2:09]

How has the current leadership in Iran and the United States changed international affairs? [Jo-Anne Hart - 1:58]

What is at stake in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program? [Jo-Anne Hart - 2:24]

What other countries play a role in the negotiations between Iran and the United States? [Trita Parsi - 1:15]

3. Class Discussion

Review the handout with the class. What major historical events have contributed to tension and disagreement between the United States and Iran? Why has Iran been the subject of recent international negotiations? What is at stake in the negotiations?

Play Jo-Anne Hart’s video:

Can we trust Iran to keep its agreements? [Jo-Anne Hart – 1:12]

Do students agree with her? Why or why not? Challenge students to consider the basis of trust. How do students decide whether to trust another person or organization? Can students think of examples of relationships from their lives that do not rely solely on trust? (For example, receipts at the store, report cards, etc.) What, besides trust, can make people confident about an agreement?

Challenge individual students to make two arguments about trust and international relations. (Be sure that each student makes both arguments.)

  1. Trust is the key to relations between countries, because…
  2. Trust is not the key, rather it a matter of reaching agreements that can be verified and enforced, because…

After a few students have presented these arguments, ask students which argument about the role of trust they find convincing and why. What are the implications if their perspective is applied to negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program? What key issues should U.S. diplomats consider regarding the negotiations?


Students should read Good Atoms or Bad Atoms? Iran and the Nuclear Issue.

Day 2

1. Taking a Closer Look at Current Negotiations

To make sure students have a firm grasp of the topic before beginning the role-play activity, you may want to review the previous night’s reading. Be sure that students understand key terms like “sanctions” and “deterrence.” You may want to prompt discussion with some of the following questions:

Is Iran allowed to have a nuclear program? Does it have nuclear weapons? Why is the international community so concerned? Why is it so difficult for the international community to determine whether Iran is attempting to build a nuclear weapon? How do current events both in the Middle East and the rest of the world affect this issue? What issues must U.S. leaders consider as they weigh their next steps?

2. Exploring Contrasting Policy Options

Break up your class into four groups and distribute Options for U.S. Policy and Options: Graphic Organizer. Assign three of the groups a policy option. Assign the remaining group the role of senators in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (If you have a large class, you may want to make a fifth group of foreign representatives.)

Option Groups: Each group will review its assigned option and develop a three-to-five minute presentation to give to the class. The presentation should make the best possible case for the option.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee: This group will review each of the options and prepare clarifying questions to ask of the option groups during or after the presentations. Each student should come up with at least two questions for each option.

Foreign Representatives: If your class is large, you may want to have some students be representatives from other countries. You should assign each student a country and tell them to research that country’s position on this issue. These students can present their countries’ views on Iran’s nuclear program and the options for U.S. policy after the presentations.

Give students about 15-20 minutes to prepare their presentations and questions. Tell option groups to fill in their option’s section of Options: Graphic Organizer as they prepare. Then organize the room so that the three option groups face a row of desks reserved for the Committee on Foreign Relations. Explain that the simulation will begin with short presentations by each option group. Encourage students to speak clearly and convincingly. You may wish to have the senators ask questions after each presentation or save all the questions for the end. Throughout the presentations, all students should fill out Options: Graphic Organizer completely.

3. Students Express Their Views

After the simulation, ask students what they think about the different options. What aspects of the different options do students support? What policies are students concerned about? Can students identify some of the difficult trade-offs that policy makers must make in dealing with this issue? What values underlie each option? What do students think should be the primary aim of U.S. policy towards Iran? What policies would achieve this aim?

How would each of these options affect the U.S. relationship with Iran in the long term? The U.S. relationship with the rest of the world? How would each affect people in the United States? What about people in Iran? What role do students believe the United States should have in addressing this issue, or other international issues? How do student opinions about the role of the United States in world affairs affect the kinds of policies that they support?

Extra Challenge: Let Your Voice Be Heard

Encourage your students to express their views on U.S. policy towards Iran.

Contact Elected Officials
Students could write letters to elected officials. They can find contact information for the White House at whitehouse.gov/contact and their U.S. senators and representatives at thomas.loc.gov.

Write Locally
Students could write letters to the editor of a local paper or write articles for the school or community newspaper.

Additional Resources from the Choices Program

Iran Through the Looking Glass: History, Reform, and Revolution

The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons

The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy

Additional videos on Iran and nuclear weapons from Joseph Cirincione, Jo-Anne Hart, and Trita Parsi.

Additional Online Resources

The United States Institute of Peace—Iran Primer

BBC—Iran Profile

BBC—US-Iran Relations: A Brief Guide

The New York Times—Timeline on Iran’s Nuclear Program

The IAEA in Focus—A Video Guide to the Work of the IAEA

Watson Institute of Brown University—Perspectives on Iran Nuclear Negotiations