An Iranian official says U.S. sanctions could force Iran to revoke its pledge to not seek a nuclear weapon. New intelligence suggests Iran is 2 years away from producing one.
The Biden administration faced a double-dose of bad and not-so-bad news Tuesday on Iran: Iranian leaders hinted they are rethinking their vow to never seek a nuclear weapon, and new Israeli intelligence suggests they are at least two years away from producing one.
Iran’s intelligence minister raised the possibility that his country would be forced to seek nuclear arms if American sanctions were not lifted, an attention-grabbing break from the country’s pledge that its atomic energy program would always be peaceful.
The remarks by the intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, added pressure on President Biden’s three-week-old administration to avert a new crisis with Iran while it grapples with the economic and health emergencies spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic. An administration official called Mr. Alavi’s statement “very concerning.”
At the same time, a new intelligence assessment by Israel’s military said that if Iran chose to build a bomb, it would need about two years, partly because it lacks all the components and technical ability. The assessment contrasts with the more alarmist assertions made by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and top members of the new U.S. administration, and suggests there may be diplomatic breathing room to avert a showdown.
Iran has long insisted that it has no interest in a nuclear weapon. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on military and security matters, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, in 2003 that nuclear weapons are forbidden. That remains Iran’s official position.
But Mr. Alavi said the American sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy could force a change in that policy.
“Our nuclear program is a peaceful program and the supreme leader clearly said in his fatwa that producing nuclear weapons is against religious law and the Islamic Republic will not pursue it and considers it forbidden,” he said on state television. “But let me tell you, if you corner a cat it might behave differently than a cat roaming free. If they push Iran in that direction, it would not be Iran’s fault but the fault of those who pushed Iran.”
Mr. Alavi’s voice carries weight, Iranian analysts said, because he is one of the cabinet members appointed by the supreme leader.
His comments came against the backdrop of an escalating standoff between Iran and Mr. Biden, who has said the United States would rescind the sanctions if Iran first returned to commitments it made under the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Iran has said the sanctions, imposed by President Donald J. Trump after he withdrew from the accord in 2018, must be rescinded first — and that Iran must be able to verify that step.
Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran has led to increasing talk among commentators in Iran’s hard-line media that nuclear weapons should be considered as an effective deterrent against enemies.
Mr. Alavi’s remarks brought that discussion out in the open at a senior level.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Ned Price, called Mr. Alavi’s comments “very concerning,” adding that it was not yet clear whether Mr. Alavi “was speaking for anyone but himself.”
Mr. Price said that Iran had an obligation under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which it ratified in 1970, to “never, never, never, never” acquire them. Iran reaffirmed that commitment in the 2015 nuclear accord.
Under the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy it is unlikely that the intelligence minister, appointed by Mr. Khamenei, would appear on state television and make statements about a key state policy without approval from the top.
Some analysts said his remarks were part of an orchestrated crescendo of threats. They include a Feb. 21 deadline, under a new Iranian law, that would bar international inspectors from visiting Iranian nuclear sites if the sanctions have not been rescinded.
Such a move would be a significant new violation of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that Iran negotiated with major powers six years ago. Since Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement, reimposed old sanctions and added new ones, Iran has been systematically disregarding elements of the accord, including limits on its nuclear-fuel stockpile.
“I think this is part of a strategy Iran is pursuing right now to put as much pressure as possible on the Biden administration to get back to the J.C.P.O.A.,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.
“This is the first time someone in the hierarchy is making such an overt threat,” he added. “This guy is saying, ‘If you push us, we will go there.’”
Richard Goldberg, a former Trump White House aide who served on the National Security Council, called Mr. Alavi’s comments “extortion,” designed to force Mr. Biden’s hand quickly.
“They’re trying everything they can, without crossing any red lines for the U.S. or for Israel, to grab headlines and to get attention to drive immediate sanctions relief because they are still suffering an economic collapse,” said Mr. Goldberg, who is now a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that opposed the 2015 nuclear deal.
Until recently, openly supporting a nuclear weapons program in Iran was considered taboo and public figures would not dare divert from the official line of Mr. Khamenei’s fatwa. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has cited the fatwa as an insurance guarantee to Iran’s critics.
But that outlook appears to have shifted.
Prominent voices among conservative political figures, analysts and media personalities are for the first time publicly calling for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. They call it “nuclear weapons as deterrent” with its own hashtag on Twitter.
Two weeks ago, the influential conservative newspaper Tabnak published a column under the headline: “Why Iran Must Seek a Nuclear Bomb.”
Reza Ramezannejad, an energy company executive who is active on Iran social media, pinned a photo of a nuclear site to his profile page in January and wrote, “God willing, soon there will front-page news that Iran tested nuclear warheads on domestic missiles.”
In Israel, which considers Iran its most potent foe, many Israeli leaders, particularly Mr. Netanyahu, had welcomed Mr. Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal. They have also expressed alarm that Mr. Biden appears ready to re-enter the accord, arguing that it is too weak.
Mr. Biden and his subordinates have argued that Mr. Trump’s strategy was counterproductive because Iran is no longer complying with the deal’s restrictions, effectively shortening the timeline Iran needs to build a nuclear weapon.
The assessment released Tuesday by the intelligence division of the Israeli Defense Forces, along with an earlier assessment by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, suggests that Iran remains at least two years away from such capability.
Israeli intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing Iran’s nuclear activities, said they believed that Iran had amassed uranium sufficient to build almost three nuclear bombs — if the uranium were enriched to weapons-grade level. The officials said such enrichment was theoretically attainable in about five months.
But the Israeli intelligence assessments said Iran still lacked the scientific and technical wherewithal to make a weapon. One senior Israeli commander, briefing journalists in Israel, said the assassination in November of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, had delivered a severe blow.
Iran has blamed Israel, abetted by the United States, for the killing of Mr. Fakhizadeh, long identified by American and Israeli intelligence services as the guiding figure behind what they have called “the Weapon Group,” a covert effort to design an atomic warhead. Iran has said Mr. Fakhrizadeh devoted himself to peaceful applications of nuclear science.
Reporting was contributed by Pranshu Verma, Michael Crowley and Isabel Kershner.