Ahmadinejad - Reuters
Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Photo by Reuters
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In the same week that Iranian nuclear negotiators in Istanbul mentioned an alleged fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banning nuclear weapons to offer reassurances about Iran’s peaceful nuclear intentions - 12 Iranian nuclear scientists reportedly attended a failed ballistic missile test in North Korea.

This is not the first time Iranian nuclear scientists have shown an uncanny interest in military applications. In May 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that a scientist employed at the Institute for Applied Physics of Tehran had included in his curriculum vitae “a Taylor-Sedov equation for the evolving radius of a nuclear explosion ball with photos of the 1945 Trinity test.” Iran’s answer about their scientist’s interest in a plutonium bomb’s nuclear explosion was elusive – and IAEA inspectors were not allowed to interview him.

Iran may now protest that its scientists’ presence had nothing to do with fitting a nuclear payload into a missile warhead – maybe they were just there on holiday. Yet, these coincidences, alongside Iran’s decade-long cover-up of its nuclear activities, are telltale signs of a military program, not a civil one.

As if this was not enough, solemn references to Khamenei’s fatwa came only days after Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, revealed in a Boston Globe opinion piece that Iran had reached ‘breakout capacity’ in 2002: “It is too late” said Mousavian “to demand that Iran suspend enrichment activities; it mastered enrichment technology and reached break-out capability in 2002 and continues to steadily improve its uranium enrichment capabilities.”  

Mousavian was pitching a compromise proposal to a Western audience, but he also unwittingly shed light on Iran’s nuclear progress and intentions. U.S. officials insist that Iran has not yet decided whether it wants nuclear weapons – and are confident that, if this decision is ever made, they will be able to know it in time to preempt and thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

When the U.S. Department of National Intelligence published its 2007 Iran National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), it followed this logic when it postulated that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even assuming this information was accurate – and successive IAEA reports offer abundant reasons for scepticism – the NIE never fully explained why the programme was halted. The standard assumption was that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had made Iranian leaders concerned that U.S. forces would now turn their attention to Tehran. 

This approach would postpone a decision to some future date – but leave open the path to nuclear weapons. Yet, this is flawed logic, because it does not take into account how advanced the program was when it was allegedly suspended.

An answer to this question is even more critical to gauging Iran’s intentions than the motives behind the decision. 

If Mousavian’s observation that Iran had “reached break-out capability in 2002” is true, then Iran’s weapons program was ‘halted’, not because its leaders’ resolve wavered, but rather because it had achieved the goal of producing a nuclear weapon short of the fissile material which the enrichment programme would later yield.

Having become the focus of intense international scrutiny on account of its previously undeclared nuclear activities, Iran stopped its efforts to build a nuclear weapon (very advanced), concentrating instead on enrichment (not advanced enough), which is critical for nuclear weapons but can be plausibly justified within the framework of a civil program. 

This explains also why Iran, with its Natanz enrichment facility exposed, sought to build a new, secret underground enrichment facility near Qom, whose ‘size and configuration’ as U.S. President Obama said, ‘is inconsistent with a peaceful program.’ 

What about the fatwa then? 

In 1984, amidst the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the late Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the reassembling of the Shah’s military nuclear team. Khomeini had that program disbanded in 1979 on Islamic grounds. But he reversed himself – and if there ever was a fatwa, the Islamic Republic’s founding father revoked it there and then. 

Taken at the height of an existential war, this decision was clearly aimed at military, not peaceful civil nuclear developments.

As talks resume in Baghdad on May 23, negotiators should not lose sight of this fact – or else they may endorse a deal that will leave Iran, in due course, with the ability to build the weapon it has always coveted.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC and the author of The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (FDD Press, 2011)