Iranian missiles on display in Tehran, 2022

Iran’s Nuclear Weaponization? Khamenei Banks on Biden’s Indecision

Saturday, 05/11/2024

In the wake of the IAEA chief’s recent trip to Iran and the US-Israel row over Rafah, the bravado of high-ranking Iranian officials has reached new levels regarding “nuclear deterrence”.

On May 9, 2024, Kamal Kharrazi, the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy advisor and former Iranian foreign minister, said that Iran will consider a doctrinal shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites. Whilst there has been only a low-key “reprimand” by the US State Department’s Spokesperson to such a nakedly threatening statement, calling it “irresponsible,” the record indicates that neither of Iran’s public expressions of resorting to nuclear deterrence, nor its attempts at materializing this goal are new.

Biden administration would be very well advised to take this latest “statement of intent” by one of Supreme Leader’s own men all too seriously for it is being uttered in the context of Iran and Israel entering open conflict as of April 2024 after thirty-years of shadow wars.

Supreme Leader's senior foreign policy advisor, Kamal Kharrazi

Since the outbreak of the conflict between Israel and Hamas on October 7, Iran and its allied regional armed proxies militarily engaged Israel and the Western alliance on several fronts. Hezbollah began firing various daily barrages into northern Israel, whilst the Houthis started their incessant attack on international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, and Iranian armed proxies in Iraq and Syria each sent salvos of projectiles to US bases in the region and Israel. Matters came to a head when Israel and Iran clashed over Israel’s levelling of the Iranian Damascus’ consular annex that dispatched seven of the IRGC top brass. The result was an open and direct projectile warfare attack from Iran against Israel.

Eight days after the Israeli elimination of IRGC top brass in Damascus in early April, I stated in “Amid Serious Iran-Israel Tension, The Nuclear Elephant Is In The Room” that Khamenei’s regime could be considering resorting to nuclear deterrence despite its “religious” and “practical” disputations to the contrary. A few other analysts of note also identified this possibility shortly after my assessment was published on Iran International English.

Soon after Israel struck a radar site in Isfahan in retaliation for Iran’s failed barrage of projectiles, the IRGC commander, Brigadier Ahmad Haghtalab, in charge of the safety of nuclear sites in Iran, publicly declared that the regime may revise its present position vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and forge ahead to achieve full nuclear deterrence.

IRGC Brigadier General Ahmad Haghtalab

To date, the most unequivocal expression of preparedness for nuclear weaponization has been the February 2024 statement of the former Iranian Atomic Energy Chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, who not only did proclaim Iran’s ability to rapidly produce adequate amounts of fissile material to weaponize warheads, but also revealed that Iran had already manufactured all the parts required for the integration of weaponizable fissile material along with the requisite fuses, warheads, and missiles. In other words, he stated that Iran is almost ready to weaponize at moments notice.

Such statements that are being uttered with increased frequency may be dismissed as empty bravados and bluffs. There are some who argue that Russia and China, which have grave stakes in controlling a junior ally like Iran, may be loath to allow Iran to become a nuclear power. Others claim that even if Iran wishes to break out into full-fledged nuclear weaponization, it may not have the delivery platforms, nor may it have readily made fuses, not to mention that it first must leave the IAEA on Nuclear non-proliferation.

If history is any guide, the Islamic Republic of Iran has over thirty years of experience in developing projectile delivery devices, i.e., missiles, upon which nuclear warheads can be deployed. During 1990-1991, the IRGC and Iranian defense ministry missions visited North Korea to observe the launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such visits harbingered Iran’s Al’Qadir project, dedicated to developing missiles capable of deploying warheads of all kinds. Indeed, Iran and North Korea continue their decades-long cooperation on missile development including nuclear warhead technology.

Details on the will and progress of Khamenei’s regime to become a nuclear power is certainly available to President Joe Biden somewhere in the West Wing of the White House. The pressing question is why the present administration is not expressing the requisite serious alarm in the face of such nuclear weaponization bravados. Expression of such alarm would be especially warranted in the wake of Iran’s latest attempt at sending over three-hundred projectiles to Israel; projectiles that could have theoretically deployed nuclear warheads.

In the name of “de-escalation” and reducing tension in the region, Biden’s administration continues to conduct secret negotiations with Khamenei’s regime and has prevented the IAEA’s board of governors from censuring Iran for its hitherto refusal to cooperate with the IAEA monitoring and inspection teams. The most recent trips of the IAEA’s chief, Rafael Grossi, to Iran were nothing but a series of futile exercises in nuclear diplomacy that have led to no re-installation of surveillance equipment in the designated sites and no new timetable for further inspections.

Khamenei’s regime has engaged in double speak about many aspects of its ongoing difference with the US since President Donald Trump left the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 and the US introduced maximum pressure sanctions. On the one hand, the Iranian regime and its cohorts of apologists often claim that the sanctions have been hurting the Iranian people and demand their suspension. On the other, Iran constantly exclaims to the world that the sanctions have had little impact on the regime’s strength whilst the regime has committed unspeakable military grade brutal suppression of several popular uprisings from the 2019 Bloody November to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” 2022 uprising.

Similarly, the regime professes a “religious” and sacrosanct opposition to nuclear weapons, wrapped in the rhetoric of an anti-nuclear weapon’s “fatwa” since 2005. Based upon the secret documents that were brought to the attention of the world first in 2003, then in 2009 and later in 2018, the regime has been always pursuing a nuclear weapons program in secret. Despite their invocation of the anti-nuclear fatwa, regime officials have intensified their threats to embrace nuclear deterrence since 2018 when Trump left JCPOA. The frequency of such threats has just increased since February.

In view of PM Netanyahu’s defiant stance vis-à-vis President Biden’s threat that the US would refuse bombs to Israel should Israel attack Rafah, the US administration must be acutely aware the Islamic Republic of Iran may get a wrong signal from the US-Israel quarrel over Hamas and Gaza. Iran may in fact have been preparing itself for a nuclear breakout for quite a while and such squabbles can hasten it. There is not doubt that if Israeli intelligence confirms to any Israeli cabinet that Iran is approaching five minutes to midnight for nuclear warhead deployment, Israel may not hesitate to act to destroy whatever Iranian nuclear facilities that it can.

Biden cannot count on Russia and China to prevent Khamenei from resorting to nuclear deterrence. If Russia and China did ever truly have such intentions to ensure that nobody else would ever join the nuclear club of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, they would have “actively” stopped India, North Korea (especially since the late 1990s), and Pakistan from achieving nuclear weapons, and they did not. In fact, scholarly surveys do offer that China and Russia have been both “a cause” and “a contributor” to “nuclear” and “missile” proliferation in Asia. Hence, at a time that both Russia and China are at logger heads with the United States (be it under Trump or Biden), not only is there no incentive for them to deny Khamenei his nuclear weapons’ ambitions, but they may be motivated to check the US-leaning emerging Arab-Israel entente by a nuclear armed Iran.

Long before Russia declared that it treats the introduction of F-16sto the Ukrainian Air Force as a nuclear threat, Russia and Iran have been solidly united in one camp. In defiance to extensive Western sanctions, Iran has become an indispensable source of cheap oil for China, whilst being a major supplier of suicide drones, missiles, and bombs to Russia since 2022. Russia, China, and Iran have been constantly and notoriously testing the West’s resolve over the past year at every tactical, economic sanction, and military strategic juncture and the West’s restraint and caution has been interpreted as hesitation by them all too clearly.

Let us not forget that the US and Western alliance declared once that if Iran would cross the red line of enriching 60% plus uranium, they would activate “the trigger” stipulation of the UN Security Council Resolutions. It is true that Iran was in formal compliance of the JCPOA when President Trump abruptly pulled out of it, however, Iran’s mass uranium enrichment ever since has been on a scale that brings it dangerously close to weapons’ capacity and constitutes a clear and present threat to world peace that has so far been left unaddressed. In other words, the West has not reacted to Iran crossing the high-level nuclear enrichment redline.

Furthermore, Biden’s most recent squabble with Netanyahu only convinces the Iranian regime that he is too concerned with winning the Arab American and Muslim American vote for re-election and would not dare to act against an Iran that would be on the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons’ state.

If Biden continues to dither and Iran breaks out towards nuclear warheads, whether Bibi Netanyahu is at the helm or not, Israel will not shrink from action. And if such eventuality ever materializes, the world must brace itself.

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