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Can Iran survive without nuclear weapons?

For years, the Islamic Republic has been accused of trying to create a nuclear bomb, but what do the country’s authorities really want?

Kamal Kharazi, adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently said Tehran would alter its nuclear doctrine if Israel posed a threat to Iran’s existence.

Kharazi, who also heads Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, said that the country “will have no other choice” if Israel targets its nuclear facilities, adding that Tehran has not yet made a final decision on creating a nuclear bomb. He noted that senior Iranian military officials have confirmed that if Israel tries to strike nuclear facilities, Iran may review its nuclear doctrine and policy – and may deviate from the considerations set out in the previous declaration.

Kharazi refers to the fatwa (religious decree) issued by Ayatollah Khamenei in the late 1990s, which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. 20 years later, Khamenei added that the creation and accumulation of nuclear weapons is wrong, and their use is “haram” – i.e., forbidden by Islamic law. However, over the past 30 years, Iranian politicians have repeatedly stated that Tehran is capable of creating such weapons, and argued that such a step would be advisable from the point of view of security.

Points for and against

Officials in Khamenei’s close circle have different views on this issue. Iran’s clerical establishment believes that the fatwa is correct not only from a religious perspective, but from a political and strategic standpoint as well, since the development of nuclear weapons will only unleash an arms race in the region. Countries like Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE will immediately want to become “nuclear powers”. The situation may get out of control and untie the hands of Israel, which will not tolerate the fact that a full-scale “nuclear club” made up of Israel’s opponents is being formed near its borders.

To this day, Israeli authorities refuse to confirm or deny that they possess nuclear weapons, although a number of experts and respected sources have described a substantial arsenal. 

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So, the clerical part of the Iranian establishment believes that the best solution would be to use the nuclear program exclusively for peaceful purposes. Moreover, the creation of nuclear weapons and their technical maintenance will require anywhere from several hundred million to several billion dollars from the state budget. In light of Western sanctions and the country’s financial problems, the clerics believe that it is more expedient to spend the money on priority tasks and solve socially significant problems that require urgent financing.

The generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and politicians affiliated with them believe otherwise. They are confident that a nuclear bomb will not only ensure Iran’s security, but also reduce the risk of a full-scale war with Israel, which, in their opinion, will happen eventually. The military part of the Iranian establishment believes that the world is on the verge of a new order and the former “written” and “unwritten” laws are no longer effective. Consequently, Iran has a unique opportunity to become a “nuclear power”.

In general, when it comes to the prospects of creating nuclear weapons, the question arises whether Tehran has the right to create an nuclear bomb and whether its program is legitimate.

From the point of view of international law, Iran has the right to develop a national atomic energy program. It has signed and ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), according to which it has the right to independently produce nuclear energy, and moreover, developed countries must help it in the development of peaceful nuclear energy.

Iran often resorts to this argument, and sometimes in a rather harsh manner. For example, at the third session of the Preparatory Committee for the Review and Extension of the NPT, which was held in September 1994, Tehran announced that it may withdraw from the treaty on the grounds that the embargo imposed by Western countries violated article IV of the NPT, which states that “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”

In light of the confrontation between the West and Iran, and the occasional threats of a Western intervention, Tehran declared that it has the right to create nuclear weapons, referring to the law on international security. Following such statements, the West accused Iran of developing an “aggressive” nuclear weapons program that will result in the creation of a bomb. In such cases, wording is very important since legally, the statements can be interpreted in different ways. Simply put, the world believes that Iran has the right to develop a nuclear program, but exclusively for peaceful uses. Creating a nuclear bomb is out of the question.

Leading Western publications and news agencies such as the Washington Post, Axios, the New York Times, CNN, the Financial Times , citing their sources, regularly report that “Iran is closer than ever to creating nuclear weapons”. Such articles have been published on a monthly basis for many years.

However, during all this time, no evidence has been provided as to whether Iran actually has a nuclear bomb. As for Tehran, on the one hand it refutes this information, calling it a provocation, but on the other hand, it maintains intrigue by saying that it has the ability to create such weapons.

The context of international relations

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its director general, Rafael Grossi, add fuel to the fire. On condition of anonymity, IAEA staff, as well as former and current members of US and European intelligence services, report that Iran is gathering the necessary funds to create nuclear weapons, without, however, taking steps that would seem too obvious.

US have officials said that Tehran has diluted a certain percentage of its enriched uranium to avoid an escalation of the conflict with the West. However, as stated in documents examined by the Washington Post, Iran’s production of enriched uranium is proceeding at record speed, and its total reserves of nuclear fuel are increasing. At the same time, the publication emphasizes that it is unclear whether Iran will eventually decide to create a nuclear bomb or not. 

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Grossi, who visited Iran in early May, has said Tehran must urgently take “quick and concrete steps” to improve the monitoring of its nuclear program. He held talks with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami. Grossi also proposed a number of steps to activate the agreement made by the IAEA and Tehran in March 2023, which stipulated increased control over Iran’s nuclear facilities. Eslami called the talks “constructive and promising” but the sides did not agree on any specific actions. 

A week later, Grossi said that for the first time in over a year, Iran had demonstrated readiness for “serious dialogue” with the IAEA on specific problems. According to Grossi, currently “there is no evidence that would indicate that Iran has moved forward with the development of nuclear weapons or plans to do so in the future.” 

At the same time, Grossi added that Iran’s nuclear program is “undoubtedly expanding, becoming bigger and more ambitious”. According to a senior international official, Tehran has enough enriched uranium to create three nuclear warheads within a few weeks, if a corresponding decision is made.

Iran’s attitude towards Grossi may be called ambiguous and rather negative. On the one hand, Tehran understands that Grossi is trying to maintain some kind of balance and be relatively unbiased, but on the other, it notes that the organization and its director are under direct pressure from the US.

Since Grossi joined the IAEA, the structure has become more politicized and subjective, although in reality, it only has a supervisory role and should strive towards diplomacy. It’s not a coincidence that Iranian media jokingly call the International Atomic Energy Agency the “American Atomic Energy Agency”.

Tehran says that it does not oppose close contacts with the IAEA and is ready to let inspectors visit its nuclear facilities. The IAEA also has reason not to believe the Iranian side, since in the 2000s, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was known for his ambiguous and harsh statements, Tehran did not allow IAEA inspectors to enter its facilities, although international agreements obliged Iran to comply. As a result, the international community assumed that Iran could be working on a nuclear bomb. But now, everything has come down to the “nuclear deal”.

Both Iran’s ruling conservatives and opposition “reformers” speak in favor of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or as it is informally called, the “Iran nuclear deal”. However, Iran’s political forces are confident that the deal should not violate the rights and interests of Iran.

The country wants written guarantees from the US to avoid a repetition of the 2018 scenario, when the Trump administration withdrew from the deal. However, the Biden administration, which initially supported a revival of the nuclear deal, was unable to reach an agreement with Iran. And given that the US will hold presidential elections in six months and Trump may return to the White House, there is little chance that relations between Washington and Tehran can be normalized. 

To be or not to be

In such difficult geopolitical conditions, Iran is trying to work out a strategy that will not hurt it on the international arena and or shake up the fragile security situation in the Middle East, but will ensure the country’s security.

Tehran is aware of the dangers of a nuclear monopoly in the region, but at the same time it cannot afford to relax and put itself at risk. The events of October 7 and the outbreak of a new conflict between Hamas and Israel have forced Iran to prioritize the security of its borders.

Iran is certain that a big war will break out in the Middle East if Trump comes to power, and Tehran may inadvertently be its cause. Sure, Trump is currently criticizing Netanyahu and his government, and is advising Israel to preserve its image so the whole world wouldn’t turn away from it. However, these statements can be regarded as merely a smart pre-election move – Trump does not want to undermine his own ratings, because it is currently “too costly” to support Israel. But if Trump returns to the White House, his rhetoric may change dramatically. Iran believes that Netanyahu is waiting until November to carry out a full-scale military operation in Rafah, in the hope that Trump will win the elections and will defeat Hamas. From this, we may conclude that the coming year will be another test of strength for security in the Middle East, and what we see now is only the calm before the storm.

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The issue with Iran’s nuclear program remains unresolved, but the problem is becoming more acute and leads to many heated discussions. The Iranian political elite has not yet reached a consensus or come to a single strategy regarding the future of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s opponents both in the region and in the world insist on completely dismantling the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure and obtaining from Tehran a written statement concerning its rejection of a nuclear weapons program.

The West and Israel believe that the “nuclear deal” has given Iran the opportunity to create nuclear weapons in the future, and that Tehran will eventually blackmail the whole world. Moreover, some players in the region are concerned that Iran’s territorial demands will increase, and its significance in the Middle East will grow in the next 50 years. In other words, neither Türkiye nor Saudi Arabia but Iran may become the “overseer” in charge of the whole region. Particularly since Tehran does not hide the fact that it wants to continue expanding its influence in the Middle East.

Iran has the most advanced nuclear-scientific and production base out of all the Islamic countries in the Middle East. For Iran, national security is more important than the economic benefits that it could receive from the West if it were to abandon its nuclear program. Of course, this does not mean that Iran is ready to create nuclear weapons right now, but if the situation reaches a critical point, neither Khamenei’s fatwa nor world opinion will stop Iran’s political leadership from taking action.

A country that prides itself on having existed for at least 3,500 years cannot just disappear in a moment. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Iranians will do everything in their power to avoid unleashing a large-scale conflict, which may lead to the most unpredictable consequences. It is not a coincidence that over the past year, Iran has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS – two organizations that are closely tied to the establishment of a new world order. By means of this, Iran has demonstrated its political and economic course towards Russia and China. Thus, we may conclude that the question of whether Iran intends to create nuclear weapons remains complex and multi-layered.

 

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