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Source: Newsweek

May 17, 2024

Iran's Drive to Build a Nuclear Bomb Is Gaining Momentum

By Tom O'Connor

Senior Writer, Foreign Policy & Deputy Editor, National Security and Foreign Policy

After long maintaining one of the Middle East's most advanced nuclear programs and most powerful conventional militaries, Iranian decision-makers are beginning to reconsider their nation's official ban on developing weapons of mass destruction in light of rising tensions and deteriorating security conditions in the region.

Such a move, vehemently opposed by Israel and the United States, which are known to possess their own nuclear arsenals, would present both substantial risks and opportunities for the Islamic Republic. But after the severe unrest surrounding the ongoing war in Gaza simmered over into the first-ever direct exchange of attacks between Iran and Israel, influential Iranian figures are seeing greater value in boosting deterrence by going down the nuclear path.

They include Kamal Kharrazi, senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, who reiterated on Sunday that Tehran was not currently developing a nuclear weapon, but "if Iran's existence is threatened, we will have to change our nuclear doctrine." Such a measure "is possible and imaginable," he said, in the event that Israel sought to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to do.

Similar messages have emerged over the past month within other influential circles in Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Ahmad Haghtalab, commander of the Nuclear Protection and Security Corps, declared that "a revision in the nuclear doctrine and policies of the Islamic Republic and departure from previously stated considerations is possible and conceivable."

While Iranian officials have for some time vowed to defend their nation by any means necessary, former Iranian, U.N. and U.S. officials have told Newsweek that the recent change in rhetoric cannot be dismissed as mere posturing.

In the words of Farzan Sabet, a former researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research now serving as senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute's Sanction and Sustainable Peace Hub, "It is a serious discursive shift at a time when regional tensions are quite high."

Iran's Nuclear Timeline

Iran's nuclear program has long been subject to international scrutiny stemming from suspicions that the country was secretly pursuing nuclear capabilities.

The program originates from U.S.-backed efforts dating to the 1950s under the shah and continued to expand after the monarchy was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Years after succeeding Islamic Republic founder Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei is widely reported to have issued a fatwa, an Islamic legal ruling, against the development of nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

But in 2006, a decade after the U.S. had already issued nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran, the United Nations Security Council adopted the first international restrictions against the country over its nuclear activities.

These sanctions were briefly eased by the landmark multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPOA) in 2015 under former President Barack Obama. In exchange, Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear development, but the U.S. withdrew from the accord under former President Donald Trump in 2018 and, as sanctions returned, Iran gradually began to accelerate its program.

Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden began a series of negotiations in a bid to reinstate Washington's participation in the deal. Talks fell through by the end of 2022, however, and the ongoing conflict in Gaza has only deepened mistrust between the U.S. and Iran.

Following his recent visit to Iran, aimed at reengaging with the country on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi warned the country would be just a matter of weeks away from building a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so. He, too, expressed concern over the recent comments from high-level Iranian figures discussing this possibility.

"Director General Grossi has repeatedly made clear his deep concern about any 'loose talk' regarding nuclear weapons," an IAEA spokesperson told Newsweek. "He has stressed that Iran is party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which bans non-nuclear-weapon states from developing such arms."

The IAEA spokesperson also cited Rossi's recent comments in which he stated that there is "no evidence to suggest that Iran has moved, or is moving, or is planning to move, to a weapons program."

Reached for comment, the Iranian Mission to the United Nations reiterated the Islamic Republic's commitment to Khamenei's initial ruling against nuclear weapons but warned against hostile acts that could force a reconsideration of Tehran's cooperation with the IAEA.

"As we know, Iran's nuclear doctrine remains unchanged," the Iranian Mission told Newsweek. "Iran will continue to adhere to the Supreme Leader's fatwa, which unequivocally prohibits the production, procurement, stockpiling, and use of any form of weapons of mass destruction."

"However, in the event of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, all of which are subject to monitoring and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency," the Mission added, "there exists a possibility of Iran reconsidering its collaboration within the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA."

Patience Wears Thin

Iranian concerns over enemy action are "the most important" of three primary factors fueling the shift in Iran's nuclear debate, according to Sabet. This, he argued, came in direct connection to an explosive series of events last month that saw Israel conduct a deadly airstrike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus, Iran launch a massive salvo of missiles and drones toward Israel and Israel conduct a reported attack on an Iranian air defense site.

"A significant portion of the nuclear signaling in April by Iranian officials and figures seemed to be aimed at deterring Israel and getting the United States to restrain Israel from conducting such a retaliatory attack, particularly on Iran's nuclear facilities," Sabet told Newsweek.

Meanwhile, the "second and third drivers, generally speaking," he added, "could be the absence of the prospect for nuclear negotiations that plausibly deliver meaningful economic sanctions relief, and concern that the current or a future U.S. administration could undertake further military or economic measures against Iran."

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat who served on Iran's nuclear negotiations team in the mid-2000s and is today a specialist at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, emphasized the impact of sanctions on Tehran's calculus on whether to maintain its commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran was one of the original signatories in 1970.

"I am afraid Iran will not tolerate the trend of remaining a member of the NPT, avoiding mastering nuclear bombs, and being rewarded with more sanctions," Mousavian told Newsweek.

He argued that "the problem is beyond the nuclear issue," as Iran was party to not only to the NPT but pacts on other forms of restricted warfare, including those pertaining to chemical and biological weapons, and yet the country continued to be subject to mounting diplomatic, economic and military pressure.

"During past decades, the world powers expected Iran to comply with commitments and deprived Iran of its rights," Mousavian said. "This will not last."

An Iranian flag waves near the Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility, on November 10, 2019. GETTY IMAGES/ATTA KENARE

Life-or-Death Decisions

The new nuclear signals are being watched closely by observers within Iran itself as well.

Alireza Taghavinia, a Tehran-based security analyst, emphasized that only Khamenei, as the nation's leading religious jurist, could reverse the country's stance on nuclear weapons. However, he also asserted that there may be a faith-based argument toward doing so in the event the state's very existence was deemed to be in jeopardy.

"I know that in Islam, preserving the survival and lives of human beings is more important than anything else," Taghavinia told Newsweek, "and if the lives of the people of Iran and the survival of the country are endangered, the situation will probably be different."

In this vein, he argued that "America should be aware that threats of military attack and sanctions are not effective in order to prevent Iran's nuclearization, and the policy of hostility towards Iran should be abandoned so that Iran does not see the need to build nuclear weapons and pursue its nuclear activities within the framework of the NPT treaty."

"Certainly, Iran has no desire to build an atomic bomb, but it cannot tolerate behaviors that endanger its survival and security," Taghavania said. "Therefore, America and Israel should not provoke and threaten Iran so that Iran does not see the need to change its strategy."

The U.S. and Israel have only doubled down on their warnings in light of the comments coming from Iran, particularly the remarks by Khamenei adviser Kharrazi, which State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called "irresponsible" during a press briefing earlier this month.

The Biden administration has vowed to ramp up the pressure against the Islamic Republic and has not ruled out a military option to ensure, as one State Department spokesperson told Newsweek citing the positions of the president and his top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, "that Iran never possesses a nuclear weapon."

"While we have long said we view diplomacy as the best way to achieve a sustainable, effective solution, all options remain on the table," the State Department spokesperson said. "The Administration has not lifted a single sanction on Iran. Rather we continue to increase pressure. Our extensive sanctions on Iran remain in place, and we continue to enforce them."

Still, the State Department spokesperson noted that U.S. officials, like the IAEA, "continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device."

Israel has issued even harsher rhetoric toward Iran's potential nuclear option over the years. Netanyahu has also continued to allude to what he saw as the pressing need to combat Iran's nuclear ambitions throughout the war in Gaza, in which Tehran has openly supported the Palestinian Hamas movement and other militias that have entered the fray from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Israel already has a lengthy history of conducting acts of sabotage and assassinations against Iranian nuclear officials and facilities. Israel has also demonstrated the willingness to take even more brazen measures against rivals' nuclear sites in the region, conducting daring air raids against reactors in Iraq in June 1981 and in Syria in September 2007.

Newsweek has reached out to the Israeli Prime Minister's Office for comment.

Risks and Opportunities

Such operations serve as point of caution for Iran, which has increasingly fortified both its nuclear and missile capabilities, including through the use of vast underground complexes that would severely complicate any unilateral Israeli operation.

"I think it's widely believed that Israel acting alone may have difficulties in destroying a dispersed Iranian nuclear weapons program," Robert Einhorn, who served as the first State Department special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control, told Newsweek. "But I don't think there's any doubt as to the Israeli will and motivation to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons."

Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Security, Strategy and Technology, said Iranian decision-makers likely see "both risks and opportunities" when looking at the experiences of emerging nuclear states in the 21st century.

Claims of weapons of mass destruction development served as the pretext for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That same year, two other states with nuclear programs, Libya and North Korea, went down very different paths, as the former agreed to shutter its facilities in a deal with the West and the latter withdrew from the NPT to accelerate nuclear weapons development.

Longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Gaddafi was ultimately overthrown and killed in a NATO-backed rebellion just seven years later. North Korea's ruling Kim dynasty remains firmly in power to this day, and commands an increasingly advanced arsenal capable of targeting even the U.S.

Iran, for its part, already possesses the largest missile and drone arsenal in the Middle East and has forged ties with an unprecedented network of mostly nonstate actors known as the "Axis of Resistance," a term conceived to rival President George W. Bush's iconic branding of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil" in the lead-up to the Iraq War. These two conventional assets have constituted the core of Iranian efforts to establish a credible deterrence for decades.

But Einhorn noted this could be shifting, as "there have been some developments that have I think supported some of the arguments within the within the Iranian elite for nuclear weapons."

"Until now, they have felt that their conventional capabilities as well as the support they get from the proxies would be a sufficient deterrent," Einhorn said. "But now they're in a situation where they face a direct attack from Israel, which was indicated by the recent exchange, but also perhaps direct attack from the United States."

"Another argument, I think, is that, whereas before, they may have felt that the regional strategy was working, they were expanding their influence, deterring their adversaries and so forth," Einhorn said, "[now] they see the United States seeking to assemble a coalition of like-minded states, including Israel, perhaps Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, Egypt, a coalition that would be designed to counter Iran and its proxies."

But in looking at the other countries in the region, many of which have elected to improve their ties with Iran in recent years despite ongoing strategic rivalries, Einhorn observed another potential effect of Iran's nuclear messaging—the prospect of others following suit. In particular, Saudi Arabia has displayed interest in ramping up nuclear activity, and suggestions to this end have come from Egypt and Turkey as well.

Sabet, the former U.N. arms control researcher, came to a similar conclusion, arguing that, an "Iranian nuclear breakout would lead other states of the region to more seriously consider building their own nuclear weapons (although they would face stiff resistance from Western states), and represent a major challenge for the global nuclear non-proliferation regime."

Ultimately, Sabet stated, the consequences of an Iranian nuclear endeavor could depend on the robustness of the deterrent established.

"It would certainly shift a degree of the balance of power in the region in Iran's favor," Sabet said, "and, if the Islamic Republic continues to believe that it faces existential threats or at least serious challenges that cannot be managed by other tools like diplomacy, lead the country to lash out more strongly and openly against its adversaries."

"On the other hand," he added, "if this leads the United States and some of its regional adversaries to come to terms with it, then it could stabilize the regional situation somewhat and perhaps even allow movement on previously intractable issues."

Ultraorthodox Jewish children stand on missile debris at a channel near the city of Arad, Israel, on April 30 following Iran's unprecedented barrage against Israel two weeks earlier. AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES

Uncharted Waters

Adding to the precariousness of the present situation, however, is a fundamental lack of trust that exists between Washington and Tehran given the trajectory of their diplomatic breakthrough once hailed as a historic success in spite of the skepticism from hard-liners in both capitals that ultimately prevailed.

Eric Brewer, former director for counterproliferation at the White House National Security Council now serving as vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, noted how Iran had been abiding by the JCPOA at the time of the Trump administration's withdrawal. As such, he said "it's no surprise that Tehran responded by expanding its nuclear program."

"President Biden tried but was ultimately unable to revive the deal. Getting any sort of deal with Iran now is much more difficult as a result," Brewer told Newsweek. "Iran's program has made technical advances that can't be undone. The geopolitical environment and the relationship between the U.S. and Europe and Russia and China is also far more fractious than in 2015."

"That doesn't mean we give up," he added, "but it does point to the long odds for an agreement, and the need for some creative thinking about what type of a deal remains possible and how we can get there."

In the meantime, the Middle East continues to trend toward greater instability stoked by the war in Gaza against the backdrop of an even more uncertain international order.

"Even if Iran isn't planning on going nuclear tomorrow, this increased nuclear rhetoric is still worrying," Brewer said, "especially as Iran's nuclear capabilities are more advanced than ever and because the conflict in the region could still play out in ways that lead to a decision by Tehran to expand its program further or go for a bomb."

Update 05/16/2024, 9:52 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include comments by a spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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