In February, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi provided what appears to be the first high-profile, public acknowledgment of Iranian regime’s nuclear weapons ambitions. The regime’s adversaries have, of course, long understood that nuclear weapons capability was the ultimate endgame for all of Tehran’s uranium enrichment, stockpiling, and nuclear development activities. But the regime had always publicly denied the obvious, insisting that the expensive and alienating work was only intended for power generation and scientific research.
If any support for that talking point could be considered convincing, it would probably be the fatwa that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued declaring that nuclear weapons were contrary to Islam and that Iran should therefore never pursue one. The edict was fodder for conciliatory policy proposals by especially credulous Western lawmakers, but serious critics of the regime rejected it as mere theater. The National Council of Resistance of Iran prepared detailed reports about the nature and role of such fatwas in order to emphasize that Khamenei’s statement had no compelling influence over the activities of Iranian institutions and could, in any event, be reversed just as easily as it was issued.
Alavi seemed to confirm this in February when he called attention to Khamenei’s fatwa once again in the context of a state media interview. The Intelligence Minister seemed at first to reiterate the claim that this was definitive proof of the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, but in the space of one sentence he pivoted to acknowledging that the edict was actually meaningless, and using that fact to threaten the West and demand even more conciliatory treatment than the regime had received up to that point.
“The fatwa forbids the production of nuclear weapons, but if they [Western powers] push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.” The meaning of this remark could hardly be any clearer: If the international community wants to avoid the rise of a nuclear Iran, it should give Tehran whatever it wants. Presently, the regime’s demands are for all US sanctions to be suspended immediately and without pre-condition, even while Iran remains comprehensively in violation of the restrictions established by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Since last year, Iranian facilities have been enriching uranium to at least 20 percent fissile purity, putting them only a short technical step away from the 90 percent enrichment that is considered weapons grade. More recently, the regime announced that it would also be starting production of uranium metal, a substance that has virtually no purpose other than as an essential component of the core of a nuclear weapon. And just this week, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi proudly declared that the recently-damaged Natanz facility planned to build back stronger than ever, with even more advanced centrifuge systems than had been installed in recent months, in clear defiance of the JCPOA.
The expansion of Natanz is supposedly designed specifically to facilitate the rapid enrichment of uranium to 60 percent fissile purity. It is unclear how this number was chosen, considering that 20 percent appears to be more than adequate for all of the civilian functions that Tehran insists comprise the entire scope of the country’s nuclear activity. It may be reasonable to assume that 60 percent is simply a round number that falls more than halfway between Iran’s current enrichment level and the ultimate red line for the regimes “breakout” to nuclear weapons capability.
In this sense, the formal announcement of 60 percent enrichment is a thinly-veiled threat, and Alavi’s prior comments make the veil even thinner than it might have otherwise appeared. The same can be said of earlier comments by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. As early as January 2019, Ali Akbar Salehi was boasting to Iranian state media about how authorities at the Arak heavy water facility had deceived the international community into believing that they had deactivating the core of that facility in accordance with the relevant provision of the JCPOA. And in November of the same year, Salehi made similar remarks about uranium enrichment, implying that the stage had been set for returning to 20 percent long before the US even ceased participation in the seven-party agreement.
It is fair to say that at this point, Iran has done everything it can do – short of issuing a formal confession – to demonstrate that it has every intention of achieving nuclear weapons capability and using it to intimidate foreign adversaries while tightening its own grip on power. The only question that now remains is how EU, its allies, and its member states should respond. At base, they have two options: offer concessions in hopes of staving off Iran’s worst impulses, or increase pressure in order to send the message that there will be consequences for following those impulses.
The past several years have been a continuous European exercise in the former strategy, and that is precisely what has brought us to the current situation in which Iranian officials apparently feel comfortably proclaiming that they will openly build a nuclear bomb unless the Western world gives them what they want. In the wake of those statements, it should be clear that the EU has long passed the deadline for a change of strategy. Rather than continuing to push the US back toward the status quo, European signatories to the JCPOA would be better off adopting their own version of “maximum pressure” and keeping it in place until the regime agrees it is in no position to be making demands and threats on the international stage.