What If Iran Already Has the Bomb?

Published by the Atlantic

There’s rarely a dull moment in Iranian affairs. The past few months alone have seen clashes with Israel and Pakistan, and a helicopter crash that killed Iran’s president and foreign minister. But spectacular as these events are, the most important changes often happen gradually, by imperceptible degrees.

One such change took a while to register but is now obvious to all: In a sharp departure from a years-long policy, Iran’s leading officials are now openly threatening to build and test a nuclear bomb.

Earlier this month, Kamal Kharazi, a former foreign minister, said that Tehran had the capacity to build a bomb and that, if it faced existential threats, it could “change its nuclear doctrine.”

“When Israel threatens other countries, they can’t sit silent,” he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera Arabic on May 9.

To emphasize that this wasn’t a gaffe, he reiterated the position a few days later when he addressed an Iranian Arab conference in Tehran.

Kharazi isn’t just any old diplomat. He heads a foreign-policy advisory body that reports directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also appointed Kharazi to the regime’s Expediency Council. He would not have spoken without Khamenei’s blessing.

For Iranian officials to openly acknowledge the possibility that Iran could pursue a nuclear weapon is a momentous change and marks the collapse of a previous taboo. Western intelligence agencies unveiled Iran’s clandestine nuclear program in 2002. For many years after that, Tehran’s leaders emphatically insisted that this was a civilian effort with no military dimensions. Khamenei was even claimed to have issued a fatwa (an Islamic ruling) banning the possession and use of nuclear weapons, although, as the journalist Khosro Isfahani recently argued, whether such a ruling has ever existed is not actually clear.

The fatwa was always a bit of a red herring anyway. Under the tenets of Shiite Islam, ayatollahs can revoke most rulings at will. “We can’t build a bomb because we have a fatwa” was thus never a convincing argument, even from a purely religious perspective.

But the repeated invocation of the fatwa by Iranian officials did make boasting about a possible bomb taboo. This proscription held throughout the long years of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other powerful countries, which resulted in the landmark nuclear deal in 2015. Even after President Donald Trump quit that deal in 2018, and Iran reinvigorated its program, the Islamic Republic made no such threats for a while.

Over the past couple years, however, Iranian officials have begun making sporadic comments insinuating a nuclear threat. In 2021, then–Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi told Western states that if they push Iran to become “a cornered cat,” they should expect it to behave like one: “If they push us to such directions, it’s not our fault,” he said, referencing the country’s nuclear intentions.

The innuendo has been stripped away in recent weeks as numerous officials have made more direct threats similar to Kharazi’s. The list of those who have publicly bragged that Iran could build nukes now includes the head of the military unit in charge of safeguarding Iran’s nuclear installments, a leading nuclear physicist known to have played a key role in the program, and a former head of the nuclear agency.

The more extreme version of the boast is that Iran already has nuclear weapons and just hasn’t tested them. A former member of Parliament’s foreign-policy committee made this claim on May 10.

Last month, when Israel’s attacks on an Iranian consular building in Damascus led to an exchange of fire between the two countries, Iranian pro-regime commentators made statements that would have been unthinkable in the past. If the United Nations didn’t act against Israel, Iran should “leave all nuclear negotiations and reveal that beautiful Iranian boy,” a pro-regime analyst said, in an obvious reference to Little Boy, the type of atomic bomb the U.S. used on Hiroshima in 1945.

“The Western intelligence entities were mistaken to think Iran won’t move toward a bomb under any conditions,” Mehdi Kharatian, the head of an Iranian think tank, said recently. Regime outlets now speak of Khamenei’s well-known “strategic patience” doctrine as having given way to “active deterrence,” allegedly evidenced by last month’s attacks on Israel, but with a seemingly deliberate echo of the language of nuclear deterrence.

Experts will inevitably debate whether all of this is a bluff or an actual change in military doctrine. Understanding the Islamic Republic has always been as much an art as a science, and key to the endeavor is distinguishing between the regime’s bark and its bite. But whatever the true intentions of the regime’s bigwigs, the rhetorical shift matters on its own.

For more than 20 years, Western intelligence agencies have believed that Iran shut down its nuclear program in 2003 and made no subsequent decision to build a nuclear bomb. In 2018, Israel was able to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear archives and examine much of their content. No finding seems to have emerged from this endeavor to significantly contradict the previous assessment of decision making in Tehran. The trouble, however, is that civil nuclear efforts can be “double purposed”—meaning that even without any specific work on weaponization, Iran’s nuclear advances have brought it dangerously close to producing a bomb.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran had agreed to enrich uranium up to only 3.67 percent for a period of 15 years, thus keeping it far from the high-grades necessary for possible military use, and to cut its stockpile of already-enriched uranium by 98 percent. When the U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran started gradually scaling up its program. Today, according to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has more than 5,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, including more than 120 kilograms that are 60 percent pure, many times more than what’s necessary for most civil purposes and a very short step away from the necessary military grade. Not only is Iran the only nonnuclear weapons state in the world to have enriched uranium to such levels, but it already has enough material for at least three bombs.

When he visited Iran last month, Rafael Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, said that the country was merely weeks, not months, away from bomb-making capacity. He also said that his agency didn’t have a full picture of the country’s program, meaning that it could be even more advanced. The assessment has been substantiated in a 112-page report that Grossi has prepared ahead of IAEA’s board of governors meeting next month in Vienna. If Iran is not able to satisfy the body that it is still abiding by its obligations to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including granting adequate access to IAEA inspectors, it could face censure or be referred to the UN Security Council.

Are we in a moment of acute crisis then?

I’ve spent much of my adult life covering the Iranian nuclear issue, and I’ve seen many such moments come and go. There is often more to the situation than meets the eye. For months now, for example, Iran and the U.S. have been holding secret talks in Muscat, with the nuclear issue at their center. Perhaps something in this subtext also explains the bizarre condolences the U.S. offered for the passing of President Ebrahim Raisi, despite his well-known involvement in crimes against humanity.

As the Washington-based analyst Karim Sadjadpour recently argued, Khamenei is 85 years old and unlikely to change his longtime strategy. Sadjadpour suggests that as long as Khamenei is alive, Tehran won’t attempt to build a bomb, but will continue to pursue the “Japan option,” which entails standing on the nuclear threshold without crossing it. Maybe the recent decision to break the rhetorical taboo is an attempt to formally declare Iran’s Japan posture: Tehran could hope that making its threshold status more explicit can deter a U.S. or Israeli attack.

Observers of the region will be forgiven if they find this explanation, though plausible, hardly reassuring, given Tehran’s disruptive ideology and vows to destroy Israel. Khamenei doubled down on those threats during Raisi’s funeral, when he met with the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and promised that the world would see a “disappearance of Israel” and its replacement with “Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

And as terrible as Khamenei is, he often avoids direct confrontations. When he finally dies, Iran will see big changes; power will pass to others, likely including some within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A rocky period will follow, with unforeseeable consequences. Whether in Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, or Washington, no one wants to see a volatile Tehran have access to nukes.

In other words, the United States and others should still want to do all they can to scale back Iran’s nuclear program. The realist theoretician Kenneth Waltz famously mused that a nuclear Iran would actually help stabilize the region. But as even Waltz’s ideological successors admit, this is a gamble best not taken.

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