When the Obama administration signed the Iran Nuclear deal in 2015, the terms of the deal significantly extended Iran’s breakout capacity (the time it would take Iran to develop weapons-grade enriched uranium fuel to produce a single nuclear bomb) from weeks to 12 months. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, suggests that Iran now has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb in a matter of days, if it so wishes. This news was further given credence by a former Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who confirmed that the country has the technical capacity to build an atomic weapon but that it has yet to decide whether to do so.
At a time of increased global tensions over Ukraine, and perhaps, the most significant threat of a nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, these revelations may have serious implications on regional stability and could undermine international peace and security. The seriousness of the issue is compounded by the recent collapse of the negotiations over a new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. The new JCPOA agreements aims to restart the monitoring processes that had restricted Iran’s nuclear programme and which the US had unilaterally withdrawn from in 2018. While the public expectation is that a new JCPOA will reduce ongoing tensions, there are serious doubts about its utility or its capacity to assuage Israel’s security concerns.
The concerns are based on the fact that since 2018 when the Trump administration took the curious decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose economic sanctions, Iran’s nuclear programme has rapidly advanced. Under the 2015 deal, Iran was limited to enriching uranium at 3.67% purity. Now it boasts of advanced centrifuges and has successfully enriched uranium to 63% purity. It would only take it a matter of days to achieve weapons-grade enrichment, which is at 90% purity, and can be done if Iran found itself in very difficult circumstances. Of course, enriching uranium is not the end of the story. There is a sizable technological gap that it needs to bridge for it to possess a formidable nuclear arsenal that could be in anyway threatening. Building a nuclear capable warhead is, for instance, incredibly tricky and complicated, and it may take years for Iran to develop this capacity.
Yet, the narrative is that a nuclear capable Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and a serious security problem for states within the region. But how true is this? At a rhetorical level, Iran has consistently insisted that its programme is for civilian purposes. In 2003, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued a fatwa condemning nuclear weapons, declaring it immoral and against Islamic law. But even if one dismisses this rhetoric of piety, what threat does a nuclear armed Iran pose?
One minor point to start with is that all nuclear weapons are objectively threatening. As the most dangerous weapons ever developed, their existence pose a threat to our survival—to friends, foe, and even those who own them. Their proliferation should therefore be discouraged. At the same time, they are also subjectively threatening, particularly to those considered as foes. To this extent, America’s nuclear weapons will pose a subjective threat to North Korea, Russia, China, Iran or any other belligerent state, but not in the same way to Canada, the United Kingdom, or Germany. The point is that how a state perceives the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons is directly correlated with the relationship it has with Iran. So, one must understand those claims that Iran’s nuclear weapons pose a threat to security from that subjective standpoint.
But there are other claims often made to underline the dangers of a nuclear armed Iran. One of such is that the Islamic regime in Tehran can not be trusted to exercise restraint. As a state that has repeatedly vowed death and destruction to Israel and the United States, Iran has shown a certain level of radical motivation that should concerning. Critics claim it will certainly use nuclear weapons against those countries if it possesses it. This argument rests on flawed premises. It assumes implicitly that the regime in Tehran is not only irrational but also suicidal. As with every dictatorship, the Islamic regime seeks its own survival as a priority. Surely, it recognises that the use of a nuclear weapon guarantees its complete destruction, not only of the regime, but possibly of the state.
A similar argument is that Iran may not directly use the weapon but could transfer it to a proxy. Given its record as a state sponsor of terrorism, such possibility cannot be ruled out. Again, I argue that as a rational agent, Iran must understand and can expect that whether the weapon is directly deployed or transferred to proxies, it will be visited with the same retaliatory measures. The risk that it will surreptitiously transfer it to a terrorist group is also overstated. First, there are few state sponsors of terrorism. If Iran joins the nuclear club, it will be the only second state sponsor of terrorism with nuclear capability. The other is Pakistan. Attributing responsibility in such a scenario would not be difficult, surely—given the vast intelligence networks possessed by many states. The use of Novichok nerve agent in England in 2018 by Russia is a case in point. Within a few days, it was determined with certainty that the nerve agent had been produced in Russia.
A final argument is that if Iran possesses a nuclear weapon, it will be emboldened to act with impunity. Since nuclear weapons serve as a deterrence to possible aggressors, Iran will feel encouraged to pursue foreign policy objectives that undermine regional security. Yet, the reality is that Iran already confidently pursues its foreign policy objectives. It provides material support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Nuclear weapons will not move the needle. They will not dramatically change the prevailing security situation or cause a significant alteration to its foreign policy objectives.
So, what if Iran builds a nuclear bomb? What may likely be the consequences? An obvious one is the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Israel already possesses nuclear weapons although it maintains a policy of ambiguity and would not confirm its status as a nuclear armed state. But states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt may seek to balance out the threat. That said, the threat of proliferation may be assuaged by the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) that brings Israel and several Arab states into security cooperation to address the security challenge posed by Iran.
During his recent visit to the region, President Biden sought to reaffirm the importance of the MEAD. Informally operational since 2015, there are indications that there is an interest in further institutionalising the alliance. Such an alliance, a middle-east NATO, could serve as a bulwark against Iran and lessen the interest by individual states to seek the development of nuclear weapons for their own security.
The most likely consequence, however, is that Israel and the United States will launch pre-emptive attacks similar to Israel’s strikes against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. If such an attack fails, then a preventive war is inevitable. As the White House reiterated in a joint statement with Israel on the 14th of this month, the US is committed to never allowing Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, and it is prepared to use “all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome”.
Dr Adediran is an Assistant professor in International Relations at Liverpool Hope University. He can be contacted on: [email protected]