Does Iran Want a Nuclear Bomb? | Opinion

In the world of international relations, the phrase "all options are on the table" holds a special meaning: the use of military force is a possibility. It's an oft-repeated line presidents employ when they want to send a strong message to an adversary in the most diplomatic way possible.

No country has been on the receiving end of this phrase more than Iran—and usually, it's a U.S. president doing the delivering. President Joe Biden's declaration this week that the United States "is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure" Iran doesn't acquire a nuclear weapon is just the latest in a long line of similar statements from presidents going back to George W. Bush. The rhetoric of the last four U.S. presidents is virtually indistinguishable from one another. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump may disagree on pretty much everything, but they were apparently aligned on one element of U.S. foreign policy—the U.S. would go to war with Iran to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.

Washington, of course, prefers the military tool to be held in reserve. Other options, from negotiations and economic sanctions to covert action and cyber-attacks, are far higher on the list. It's no secret why Biden qualified his support for military action with "as a last resort" and stressed that diplomacy remains the best way to manage the Iranian nuclear file. While the U.S. could take much of Tehran's nuclear facilities off-line in a hypothetical bombing campaign, the risks of such an operation would be quite high to the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East.

We know Iran would retaliate to a U.S. military strike because it has done so before, when in response to the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, several dozen Iranian ballistic missiles were launched against two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces. If this is how Iran behaved after the death of a single individual, imagine what the response would be for the destruction of its prized nuclear enrichment program.

Will Iran sprint for a nuclear weapon? Many in the West scoff at the question and assume Tehran has already decided to militarize its nuclear activity in due course. Why else, they ask, would Iranian scientists be enriching uranium to 60 percent, a short technical step from weapons-grade fuel? Why else would the Iranians be digging an entirely new series of tunnels deep underneath a mountain, south of its main Natanz enrichment site? And what other explanation could be given for Iran's continued obstruction of the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigations?

An Iranian flag flutters
An Iranian flag flutters across from the Milad Tower in the capital Tehran, on April 12, 2021. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. intelligence community, however, has yet to come to a firm conclusion about whether Iran wants a nuclear bomb. Speaking to a Wall Street Journal conference last December, CIA Director William Burns said his agency "doesn't see any evidence that Iran's Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] has made a decision to move to weaponize." The Office of the Director of National Intelligence's annual threat assessment, published in March, lent additional support to Burns' analysis: "We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device."

Could those assessments change as the strategic situation changes? Absolutely. But one must account for all of the reasons why running toward a nuclear bomb is a bad policy choice for Iran. Mike Sweeney, a colleague of mine at Defense Priorities, wrote a lengthy piece last year detailing why the Iranian political leadership might think twice before going down the nuclear route.

For one, Iran's adversaries in the Middle East are already sufficiently deterred from attacking Iranian territory, courtesy of the non-state groups (Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria and Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) Tehran has armed and nurtured for years. The Iranians have devoted extensive time, energy, and material support building up this network of proxies. Hezbollah, for instance, possesses approximately 130,000 rockets of various ranges and calibers, a fleet of drones and is arguably more powerful than the Lebanese state. The Houthis have access to some of the very same missile technology Iran currently employs, and the group hasn't hesitated to use it against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Iraq's Shiite militias, some of which are embedded within Iraq's official security forces, are a core component of the Iraqi political system and have conducted countless rocket attacks on U.S. troops still stationed in the country. U.S. forces in eastern Syria aren't immune to these attacks either. Would a nuclear bomb add much to Tehran's deterrent?

Two, a nuclear weapon wouldn't actually help Tehran project power in the region. Developing them, let alone using them, would result in immediate military action from much stronger powers, undermining the very purpose of the bomb, which is ensuring Iran's security and territorial integrity. An Iranian nuclear breakout could also compel other states in the region to develop their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wasn't shy in stating that if Tehran decided to develop a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would do the same. It's difficult to see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has openly castigated countries for telling Turkey not to develop the bomb, not reacting in the same way. Is nuclear proliferation in the Middle East in Iran's security interest—and if not, what would be the point?

Biden was strong with his words this week. There is an agreement on the table for the Iranians to sign. If they don't sign it, "we will not, let me say it again, we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," he said. Whether that's Tehran's game-plan, only time will tell.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.