Does Iran Really Want to Build Nuclear Weapons at Any Cost? Maybe Not

In the past it took nations three to 10 years to build nuclear bombs, yet 30 years since re-launching its nuclear program, Iran hasn’t assembled a bomb. It aspires to be on the threshold 

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Members of the media and officials tour the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran, December 23, 2019.
Members of the media and officials tour the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran, December 23, 2019.Credit: Wana News Agency/Reuters
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

July 13 marked the fifth anniversary of the nuclear accord between Iran and the major powers, which remains in effect until 2025. At about the same time, Iran experienced explosions and fires at missile sites, power stations, industrial plants and, most significantly, at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.

The blasts at several of the Natanz buildings were very powerful, badly damaging the advanced centrifuges. The sabotage has been attributed to a secret operation by Israeli intelligence, perhaps in tandem with American intelligence. Various reports say the damage to the centrifuges will delay their development and set back Iran’s nuclear program by about a year. 

If the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence are responsible for the explosion as well as for other acts of sabotage and fires that may have originated in operations by underground organizations working with them, it is definitely an accomplishment for Israel. But it is a tactical, not a strategic, accomplishment. 

Israel and the United States have been waging a covert and overt rearguard battle to disrupt and delay Iran’s nuclear program for decades. The toolbox used in this war, according to different reports, has included blowing up facilities and equipment, assassinating scientists, cyberwarfare, diplomacy, and sanctions that are badly hurting the Iranian economy. Yet despite all the difficulties in its path, Iran has not really been deterred and has continued to pursue its nuclear program, adjusting its pace to the circumstances. 

Yet perhaps it’s time to change the concept that Iran aspires to assemble nuclear weapons at all costs. A glance at the history of nuclear weapons manufacture shows that all 11 countries that wished to build bombs did so within three to 10 years. These include the five major powers; Israel (according to foreign reports); India; Pakistan; and North Korea. Two countries, South Africa and Ukraine, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear weapons. It’s hard to work out why Iran, which has extensive scientific knowhow, which surreptitiously obtained nuclear technology and whose scientists and universities are high level, has not been able to build a bomb in 30 years. 

Maybe it’s time to infer that Iran could have assembled nuclear bombs long ago, but is not doing so – for reasons it is keeping to itself. 

A year and a half after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, Iraq invaded Iran. For the next eight years, Iran’s leaders were focused on this bloody war that caused a million casualties on both sides, and saw Iraq use chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Developing a nuclear bomb was not at the top of their agenda then. Some reports in Iran, which have not been solidly corroborated, say that Khomeini himself was reluctant to develop nuclear weapons, because he felt it would be counter to Islamic law, which calls to avoid harming innocents.

Whatever the truth may be, after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the nuclear program was restarted by his successor Ali Khamenei. It has continued ever since, despite the attempts by Israel and the United States to obstruct it and despite opposition and condemnation from most of the international community. 

A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020. Credit: REUTERS

When the Iraq war ended, a fierce debate ensued among Iran’s religious, political and military leadership as to what lessons should be drawn from it. The consensus answer was that since Iran’s cities had been bombarded by missiles, the country must develop all types of missiles for various ranges. It did so first with the aid of North Korea and later with its own impressive independent production. Another conclusion was that Iran should develop and produce chemical weapons (this is where the Israeli arms trader Nahum Manbar made his contribution, for which he went to prison) and the countermeasures to monitor and defend against them. 

Another conclusion was that Iran should resume its nuclear program that had begun prior to the Revolution by the Shah regime.

In 2015, under pressure from the economic sanctions and under threat by Israel to bomb its nuclear sites, Iran signed the nuclear accord with the five major powers and Germany. The accord, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently opposed, is in force for 10 years. It imposed drastic restrictions on Iran’s nuclear sites, technology and materials, and Iran upheld them. 

When it was signed, Israeli intelligence believed Iran was three to six months away from producing its first nuclear bomb, and assessed that the accord pushed this capability three years down the line. 

Since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018 (the other signatories all still adhere to it) and forcefully renewed the sanctions, Iran has made some measured counter-moves, such as resuming development of advanced centrifuges. These are disturbing violations, but Iran has not withdrawn from the accord and is not “breaking through”  and rushing to a bomb.

While the international and economic pressure, as well as the covert campaign, against Iran should continue, we must also acknowledge that Iran wants to become a nuclear threshold state, and for now is still extremely mixed over whether to build a nuclear bomb. 

The Iranian dilemma is as follows: Iran’s leaders look to North Korea and see that a nuclear weapon is a guarantee for the regime’s survival and a barrier against a military strike. But they also know that if Iran builds a nuclear weapon, it will incur the wrath not just of Israel and the West, but also of its friends Russia and China. The economic boycott of Iran will intensify and the general population will be hit even harder. Iran would become a pariah like North Korea and its rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will be spurred to develop their own nuclear weapons. And this Iranian uncertainty translates into a policy of walking on the brink: Staying a few months to a year away from building a nuclear bomb, but not actually assembling it.

Yet for Israel even a nuclear threshold is a nightmare and this is the reason why Israeli and U.S. intelligence will continue to try to sabotage Tehran’s program.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: