Iranian officials are now speaking openly about something Tehran has long denied as it enriches uranium to the closest levels ever to weapons-grade material: The Islamic Republic is ready to build an atomic weapon at will.
The remarks could be dark to force more concessions to the negotiating table from the US without plans to go for the bomb. Or, analysts warn, Iran could reach a point like North Korea did some 20 years ago, where it decides the ultimate weapon outweighs further international sanctions.
All of that could be put to the test on Thursday as Iran, the US and the European Union prepare for an early summit that appears to be a last-ditch effort in Vienna to revive Tehran’s frayed nuclear deal amid renewed pressure . This includes an Iranian online video suggesting the country’s ballistic missiles could “turn New York into a pile of rubble from hell.”
Hyperbole aside, the language as a whole marks a distinct verbal escalation from Tehran.
“Within a few days we were able to enrich uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium. … Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb, but no decision has been made by Iran to build one,” Kamal Harazi, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Al Jazeera in mid-July. Uranium enriched to 90% is considered weapons grade.
Ataollah Mohajerani, culture minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, wrote afterward in Iran’s Etemad daily that Kharrazi’s announcement that Iran could build a nuclear weapon provided a “moral lesson” for Israel and President Joe Biden .
And finally, Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear agency, made his own reported comment about a possible military aspect of Iran’s program.
“As Mr. Kharrazi mentioned, Iran has the technical ability to build an atomic bomb, but there is no such plan on the agenda,” Eslami said on Monday, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Eslami’s agency later said he had been “misunderstood and misunderstood” – likely a sign that Iran’s theocracy did not want him to be so specific. Eslami’s threat also carries more weight than others, as he worked directly for Iranian defense agencies linked to Iran’s military nuclear program — including one that secretly built uranium enrichment centrifuges with the help of Pakistani nuclear proliferator AQ Khan.
But by 2003, Iran had abandoned its military nuclear program, according to US intelligence agencies, America’s European allies and IAEA inspectors. The US had just invaded Iraq, citing claims that were later rejected that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. America was already at war in Afghanistan, another nation neighboring Iran.
Libya under then-dictator Moammar Gaddafi abandoned its own nascent military nuclear program based on the same Pakistani centrifuges that Tehran bought from Khan.
Iran eventually reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, in which it received relief from economic sanctions while drastically curtailing its program. Under the deal, Tehran could enrich uranium to 3.67 percent while keeping a 300-kilogram (660-pound) uranium stockpile under constant surveillance by surveillance cameras and IAEA inspectors.
But then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal in 2018, saying he would negotiate a stronger deal, including on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support for regional militant groups. He did not do it. Attacks on land, sea and air raised tensions in the wider Middle East. And Iran after a year began to violate the terms of the agreement.
According to the IAEA’s latest public count, Iran has a stockpile of about 3,800 kilograms (8,370 pounds) of enriched uranium. More worryingly for non-proliferation experts, Iran is now enriching uranium to 60% purity — a level it has never reached before, a short, technical step away from 90%. These experts warn that Iran has enough 60% enriched uranium to reprocess it into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
Iranian diplomats for years have pointed to Khamenei’s sermons as a binding fatwa, or religious edict, that Iran would not build an atomic bomb.
“We don’t need nuclear bombs. We have no intention of using a nuclear bomb,” Khamenei said in a speech in November 2006, according to a transcript from his office. “We don’t claim to dominate the world like the Americans, we don’t want to dominate the world by force and we need a nuclear bomb. Our nuclear bomb and our explosive power is our faith.”
But such decrees are not written in stone. Khamenei’s predecessor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued fatwas that revised his own earlier pronouncements after he took power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And whoever would follow the 83-year-old Khamenei as the country’s supreme leader could make his own fatwas revising those previously issued.
For now, however, it appears that Iran will continue to lean toward the nuclear threat. Public opinion seems to be changing as well.
A July telephone survey by IranPoll, a Toronto-based firm, shows that about a third of the Iranian public now supports abandoning the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and pursuing the bomb. A September 2021 poll found that fewer than one in 10 respondents supported such a move.
The margin of error for the company’s two polls of 1,000 respondents was about 3 percentage points.
A video recently posted online by an account believed to be associated with Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards bluntly made the missile threat to New York. He described Iran as “one step away from a nuclear breakthrough and from joining (other countries) that have nuclear weapons.”
The title of the video? “When will Iran’s nukes wake up from their slumber?”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the Gulf and Iran news director for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations around the world since joining AP in 2006. Follow him on Twitter at www .twitter.com/jongambrellAP.