Analysis: Iran is now open about nuclear bomb prospects

FILE - In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work on the secondary circuit of the Arak heavy water reactor, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, in 250 kilometers southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. Iranian officials are now talking openly about something Tehran has long denied as it enriches uranium to its closest ever level in terms of military quality: Iran is ready to build an atomic weapon at will.  That could be put to the test on Thursday, August 4, 2022, as Iran, the <a class=United States and the European Union prepare for a snap summit that appears to be a last-ditch effort in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal in shreds of Tehran. (Iranian Atomic Energy Organization via AP, file)” title=”FILE – In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work on the secondary circuit of the Arak heavy water reactor, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, in 250 kilometers southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. Iranian officials are now talking openly about something Tehran has long denied as it enriches uranium to its closest ever level in terms of military quality: Iran is ready to build an atomic weapon at will. That could be put to the test on Thursday, August 4, 2022, as Iran, the United States and the European Union prepare for a snap summit that appears to be a last-ditch effort in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal in shreds of Tehran. (Iranian Atomic Energy Organization via AP, file)” loading=”lazy”/>

FILE – In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work on the secondary circuit of the Arak heavy water reactor, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, in 250 kilometers southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. Iranian officials are now talking openly about something Tehran has long denied as it enriches uranium to its closest ever level in terms of military quality: Iran is ready to build an atomic weapon at will. That could be put to the test on Thursday, August 4, 2022, as Iran, the United States and the European Union prepare for a snap summit that appears to be a last-ditch effort in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal in shreds of Tehran. (Iranian Atomic Energy Organization via AP, file)

PA

Iranian officials are now openly talking about something Tehran has long denied as it enriches uranium to its closest ever level of weapons-grade: The Islamic Republic is ready to build an atomic weapon at will.

The remarks could be bluster to force more concessions at the US negotiating table with no plans to look for the bomb. Or, as analysts warn, Iran could reach a point like North Korea did some 20 years ago where it decides that the ultimate weapon trumps any new international sanctions.

All of that could be put to the test on Thursday as Iran, the United States and the European Union prepare for a whirlwind summit that appears to be a last-ditch effort in Vienna to revive Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal in middle of the new pressure. This includes an Iranian video online suggesting that the country’s ballistic missiles could “turn New York into a heap of hellish rubble”.

Hyperbole aside, the language taken as a whole marks a clear verbal escalation from Tehran.

“Within a few days, we were able to enrich the uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium. … Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb, but Iran has not decided to build one,” Kamal Kharrazi, adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Al Jazeera in mid-July 90% enriched uranium is considered weapons grade.

Ataollah Mohajerani, culture minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, later wrote in Iran’s Etemad daily that Kharrazi’s announcement that Iran might build a nuclear weapon provided a “moral lesson” to Israel and the President Joe Biden.

And finally Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear agency, made his own comment on a potential military aspect of Iran’s program.

“As Mr. Kharrazi mentioned, Iran has the technical capability to make an atomic bomb, but there is no such plan on the agenda,” Eslami said Monday, according to the report. semi-official Fars news agency.

Eslami’s agency later said he had been “misunderstood and misjudged” – likely a sign that Iran’s theocracy did not want him to be so specific. Eslami’s threat also carries more weight than others, as he has directly worked for Iranian defense agencies linked to Iran’s military nuclear program – including one that secretly built uranium enrichment centrifuges with the aid from Pakistani nuclear proliferator AQ Khan.

But by 2003, Iran had abandoned its military nuclear program, according to US intelligence agencies, America’s European allies and IAEA inspectors. The United States had just invaded Iraq, citing later denied claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. America was already at war in Afghanistan, another country neighboring Iran.

Libya under dictator Muammar Gaddafi abandoned its own fledgling military atomic program that relied on the same Pakistani-designed centrifuges Tehran bought from Khan.

Ultimately, Iran concluded its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw it receive economic sanctions relief while dramatically reducing its program. Under the deal, Tehran could enrich uranium to 3.67%, while maintaining a stockpile of uranium of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) under constant surveillance by IAEA surveillance cameras and inspectors.

But then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal in 2018, saying he would broker a stronger deal that included Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support for regional militant groups. He did not do it. Land, sea and air attacks have raised tensions across the Middle East. And Iran, after a year, started to break the terms of the agreement.

According to the IAEA’s latest public count, Iran has a stockpile of about 3,800 kilograms (8,370 pounds) of enriched uranium. More worrying for non-profiled experts, Iran is now enriching uranium up to 60% purity – a level it has never reached before and which is a technical step away from 90%. These experts warn that Iran has enough 60% enriched uranium to turn it into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

For years, Iranian diplomats have called Khamenei’s preaching a binding fatwa, or religious edict, that Iran would not build an atomic bomb.

“We don’t need nuclear bombs. We have no intention of using a nuclear bomb,” Khamenei said in a November 2006 speech, according to a transcript from his office. “We do not pretend to dominate the world, like the Americans, we do not want to dominate the world by force and need a nuclear bomb. Our nuclear bomb and our explosive power are our faith.”

But such edicts are not carved in stone. Khamenei’s predecessor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued fatwas that revised his own earlier statements after he seized power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And anyone who follows 83-year-old Khamenei as the country’s supreme leader could write its own fatwas revising those previously issued.

For now though, it looks like Iran will continue to address the atomic threat. Public opinion also seems to be changing.

A July telephone poll by IranPoll, a Toronto-based firm, suggests that about a third of the Iranian public now supports abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and seeking the bomb. A September 2021 poll found less than one in 10 respondents favored such a move.

The margin of error for the company’s two surveys of 1,000 respondents was about 3 percentage points.

A video recently uploaded by an account suspected of being associated with Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards squarely threatened New York with missiles. He described Iran as being “one step away from a nuclear breakthrough and joining (other countries) that have nuclear weapons.”

The title of the video? “When will Iran’s nuclear bombs come out of their slumber?”

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Jon Gambrell, Gulf and Iran news director for The Associated Press, reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the world since joining the AP in 2006. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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