Iran plots path to nuclear weapon in background to US talks
Since 2002, the Iranian nuclear file has been a vital issue in relations between Iran’s regime and the major world powers. It could even be argued that this issue has been Tehran’s primary source of leverage in its relationship with the West. In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, it succeeded in making the case that the development of its missiles program was solely concerned with giving it a deterrent capability to protect itself against any attacks similar to the US-backed one carried out by Iraq in the 1980s. With the regime massively expanding its presence across the region through its proxy militias, it has created a defensive line, making the 2015 nuclear deal an essential policy issue for the West and a source of leverage for Iran to ease any pressures imposed on it.
Iran’s recent announcement that it was increasing its level of uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity coincided with the nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna. This forms part of Iran’s efforts to strengthen its negotiating position, especially after the recent attack on the Natanz nuclear facility and the questions it raised about the impact on Iran’s enrichment capabilities.
Through this announcement, Tehran wanted to send a message that it has not been affected by the attack and that it possesses the capability to continue enriching uranium and perhaps to go even further. This is one of a number of recent measures taken by Iran’s regime to strengthen its nuclear technology capabilities. While some of these steps were declared publicly, others were covert.
Iran’s handling of the nuclear energy issue has raised concern over its activities. The regime has continued to peddle the usual implausible claims in justification, insisting that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and asserting that this claim is supported by the principle embraced by the regime according to a fatwa issued by the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, rendering the possession of nuclear weapons unlawful. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly reiterated this principle, stating: “Manufacturing and storing nuclear bombs is wrong and using them is unlawful and Iran totally rejects them, although we possess nuclear technology.”
Even if we put aside our cynicism about the Iranian regime’s honesty, the citation of this alleged religious fatwa in support of its claim that its nuclear program is peaceful and unconnected to developing nuclear weapons is quite easily refuted. First of all, the fatwa in question only emerged in 2003, 14 years after Khomeini’s death — even though the Iranian state’s institutions had previously recorded all of Khomeini’s remarks, no matter how trivial. Given this fact, we might express skepticism at the convenient emergence of such a significant fatwa at a time when Iran was facing pressure following revelations about the actual purposes of its nuclear program. Even then, the program was clandestine and conducted away from the observation of international bodies concerned with monitoring nuclear activities. Whether or not Khomeini ever actually issued such a fatwa, it is clear that the timing of its announcement 14 years after his death had a definite purpose — namely attempting to minimize the pressure exerted on Iran, especially America’s threats to invade the country and oust the theocratic regime following its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It should also be noted that the Iranian regime’s position on its nuclear program is consistent with the principle of “Taqiya” (concealment), which is considered a key doctrinal pillar of Twelver Shiism, on which the regime was founded. The principle of Taqiya gives the sect’s adherents, including Khomeini, Khamenei and the other jurists, the right to take steps to conceal actual beliefs and opinions to avoid any religious or worldly harm to their interests. This concept could clearly be applied to the regime’s position in relation to possessing nuclear weapons. This fundamentalist interpretation of Shiism gives its adherents, especially religious and spiritual leaders, jurisprudential flexibility to circumvent any religious or other impediment. It was enthusiastically adopted after Iran embraced its theocratic system under the absolute guardianship of the jurist in the constitutional amendments of 1989.
Several other ideas and precepts were also applied to the principles of Iranian foreign policy. The foremost among these is utilitarianism, which elevates the principle of the regime’s survival to a supreme religious value. This means that, in any cases of a failure to reconcile policies with values, the fundamental political consideration — namely the survival of the regime — should be given precedence over any religious considerations. This explains the comments by Iranian Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi on abandoning Khomeini’s fatwa regarding the possession of nuclear weapons if doing so is deemed expedient. Late former President Hashemi Rafsanjani expressed the same idea when he said: “We could resolve any problem threatening us from an Islamic viewpoint. However, endangering the country on the basis that we behave according to the Islamic teachings is totally un-Islamic.”
It is clear from all these points that, since the inception of the revolution in 1979, Iran’s regime has often avoided engaging seriously in international disputes and conflicts to maintain its survival and its vital foreign policy interests as a primary objective.
This policy is also guided by other principles, according to which the possession of nuclear weapons is an issue of crucial importance for the Iranian leadership. Achieving this is dependent on prioritizing several objectives, such as rejecting any external hegemony and achieving independence and self-sufficiency. These principles have led to Iran’s regime adopting a constantly hostile position toward neighboring nations, as well as several other countries worldwide. In this context, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could be construed as a form of self-protection.
According to American political scientist Kenneth Waltz, a nuclear arsenal is an effective means for any nation to maintain its security within a chaotic world order, in which only those that possess military might can survive. From this perspective, the possession of weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological, is considered a deterrent that forestalls attacks. In this context, Khamenei argues that the US does not oppose the Iranian nuclear program for the sake of curbing nuclear proliferation, but due to the potential independence and economic influence that Iran could gain from the status of being a nuclear power.
At this point, Iran’s leaders, including Khamenei, reiterate that, in order to achieve independence, full national sovereignty and honor, it is essential to pay a certain price; while the option of independence is costly, they assert that it is worth paying that price.
On this basis, any talk of there being a religious or ideological impediment preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons is fanciful and does not reflect the true essence of the Iranian regime’s position. Iran using its potential nuclear capabilities to put pressure on the US and other major world powers, while reaffirming that it does not seek to possess nuclear weapons, seems like a transparent Iranian gambit, especially since the passage of time and acquisition of nuclear knowhow has reduced the time needed for Iran to reach the nuclear breakout point.
This is especially clear after the regime announced it was raising the proportion of enriched uranium in its reserves from 20 percent purity to 60 percent. This is in addition to the regime’s installation of sophisticated IR5 and IR6 centrifuges. These are not required for peaceful purposes, to which Iran claims its program is dedicated.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which first began to take shape in 1974, came about mainly through two initiatives. The first of these was the shah’s nuclear project and his desire to strengthen Iran’s position as a dominant power in the Middle East, particularly in the Arabian Gulf region. The second was support for US President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. The shah viewed Iran’s nuclear program as being a symbol or source of strength. His ambitions may have been similar to the current regime’s, with Tehran certainly showing a strong desire to tip the regional balance of power in its favor.
Meanwhile, the US does not deem the fundamentalist form of Shiite Islam represented by Iran as hostile; instead it sees confrontation with Iran as pointless and believes there should be a new regional order that includes Iran. President Joe Biden’s perspectives and policies on this issue seem indistinguishable from those of Barack Obama. There are efforts to incorporate theocratic Iran, as was previously tried with nationalist Iran under the shah, in order to run the region by creating conflicts. In fact, the drive to achieve this objective through the nuclear deal has put the US and the region on a disastrous trajectory, with Iran prioritizing the expulsion of America from the region, as well as restructuring the regional order in its favor.
The Iranian regime, in keeping with its religious and historical orientations and inclinations, will not seek to be an ally of the US, but will instead pursue more openness to China and Russia. The US may find itself in need of the ousting of the regime, just as it ousted the shah, or at least allowed it to happen, after he committed a geopolitical mistake against the US.
To conclude, it could be said that, despite US pundits’ comments about Iran’s inability to develop nuclear weapons at this stage, even while it increases its uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity, Iran’s strategy seeks to reduce its nuclear breakout time. Previous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that Iran had secured enough low-enrichment uranium to make one nuclear bomb — and for which it already has the missile infrastructure capable of carrying it. If this happens, it will give Iran a tremendous deterrent force in the face of its foes, at the head of which come the US and Israel.
Another important point that should not be overlooked is that religious fatwas are adaptable and changeable according to time and place. Given that Khamenei ordered the production of nuclear weapons 19 years ago, and considering the political, diplomatic and security dimensions related to the Iranian nuclear file — not to mention the sanctions and economic pressures on Iran, which the regime could categorize as a direct threat to its existence — it is plausible that this fatwa could be altered using numerous pretexts. These include arguing that it could cause harm to Iranian interests or that it restricts Iran from pursuing its general interests.
Experience shows that, if Iran’s regime deems any action necessary to protect itself and its interests, it is ready to use literally any means and cross any red line, let alone disregard an alleged fatwa that was only recalled 14 years later amid concerns about US actions against Iran following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Iran’s handling of the nuclear energy issue has raised concern over its activities.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
In this context, we should recall the words of an article published in mid-February by Iran’s conservative newspaper Javan, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, about the option of withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and stepping up uranium enrichment. This article stated that, while Iran was awaiting the decision of the new Biden administration on the nuclear deal, if Tehran concludes there is no possibility of the US honoring the original obligations set out in the 2015 nuclear deal, it could continue with its nuclear development within the framework of “reviewing its nuclear program” in a strategy independent of the 2015 deal. This means that Iran’s regime rules out not only turning its back on the nuclear deal, but also completing its nuclear cycle to produce nuclear weapons.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami