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RFE/RL staff

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Tehran's Nuclear Threats Raise Global Concerns

  • Iranian officials' recent rhetoric suggests a potential shift towards nuclear weaponization as a deterrence amid hostilities with Israel.
  • Iran's advanced nuclear capabilities and failed revival of the 2015 nuclear deal add credibility to these threats.
  • Despite public statements, Iran's Foreign Ministry insists there is no change in the country's nuclear doctrine.
Tehran

Acquiring nuclear weapons has long been a taboo topic in Iran, where the country's supreme leader has declared them un-Islamic.

But a growing number of Iranian officials in recent weeks have openly suggested that the Islamic republic could weaponize its nuclear program, which Tehran has long claimed is strictly for civilian purposes.

The change in rhetoric has coincided with Tehran's growing hostilities with Israel. Last month, Israel launched an attack on Iran in response to Tehran's unprecedented missile and drone assault on its archfoe.

Experts say Iran's growing threats to build nuclear weapons is worrying, although they maintain that the statements are likely geared toward deterring another attack on Iranian soil.

Eric Brewer, deputy vice president of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the Iranian threats appeared to be "conditional."

"I do think that if Israel or the United States carried out an attack on Iran's nuclear program, there is a very good chance that Tehran would in fact decide to build nuclear weapons," he said.

Real Or Rhetoric?

Kamal Kharazi, a former foreign minister and current adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned on May 13 that if Israel threatens Iran, "we might review our nuclear doctrine."

"We do not want nuclear weapons and the supreme leader's fatwa is to that effect. But if the enemy threatens you, what do you do?" he said.

Days earlier, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Kharazi said Iran "has the capacity to produce a bomb," though the country had not taken the actual step of making one.

Just before Israel's April 19 strike on Iran, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps warned that an attack that targeted Iranian nuclear facilities would prompt a reciprocal attack on Israel and could lead to a rethinking of Iran's stance on nuclear weapons.

Brewer said what lent the threats "a degree of credibility" is that Iran's nuclear program is far more advanced today than it was in the past.

A landmark deal with world powers in 2015 restricted Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018, leading Tehran to accelerate its uranium enrichment and limit international inspections of its nuclear sites.

Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute, says failed international efforts to revive the nuclear accord could be behind Tehran's recent threats to build nuclear weapons.

Another reason, he said, could be to “deter the current or a future U.S. administration from undertaking another ‘maximum pressure’-style economic and military campaign against Iran.”

Fatwa Not An Obstacle

In 2010, Khamenei issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying that Iran considers the use of nuclear weapons to be "haram" and that the country would not pursue one.

The fatwa has been cited as evidence by Iranian officials that the Islamic republic does not seek nuclear weapons.

But Brewer said Khamenei's fatwa was "not a meaningful barrier to Iran building the bomb."

"Iran could in theory do most of the work on a weapon with the fatwa in place and then Khamenei could rescind it at the last minute," he added.

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Despite the public comments by Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry has insisted that there has been no change in the country's nuclear doctrine.

Sabet said this dual messaging could "reflect a debate inside the system in Iran, in which the balance of power or consensus until recently did not favor building and deploying nuclear weapons, but which may be shifting."

Some Iranian media reports have said that the country has enough enriched uranium to produce 10 nuclear bombs.

Brewer says U.S. estimates suggest that it would take Iran about two weeks to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb. But he says manufacturing a deliverable nuclear device could take months, or even more than a year.

By RFE/RL

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