Iran has the technical capability to produce an atomic bomb, but it does not intend to do so, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Mohammad Eslami said Monday. He was speaking to a reporter from Fars News Agency, the Iranian media channel that is considered close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
His comments emphasized that the AEOI was in regular contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Therefore, the comments, although they seem to present some kind of new bragging on behalf of the Islamic Republic, are ostensibly couched in terms of compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran says.
Under the terms of the so-called Iran deal, "Iran would limit its capacity and accept strict monitoring of its nuclear activities," Eslami said. Iran has shifted its policy since the US left the deal, openly enriching more uranium to higher levels. It continues to work on its long-range missiles and on satellite launch vehicles, technology that could potentially enable a nuclear weapon to be launched from a missile.
Eslami's point, however, was that Tehran has been at the receiving end of "false accusations."
"After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Western side, in order to return to the JCPOA, is resuming the false accusations that were raised in the past," he said. "These accusations originate from the hypocrites and the Zionist regime, and they have been expressing these false issues for about 20 years."
Eslami said Iran turned off cameras monitoring its nuclear operations in response to these accusations. This seems a bizarre response to claims of "false" accusations. If they are false, why turn off the cameras?
The larger context
Eslami's comments come in the context of other ones by senior Biden administration officials.
Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said reaching a deal with Tehran was now "highly unlikely," according to Axios. There is some interplay in the administration between this viewpoint and that of US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley. Overall, though, the administration keeps saying the window is closing.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, responded to the announcement by the AEOI chief that Tehran is now capable of producing an atomic bomb.
"This is another provocative action on the part of Iran and is testimony to the limp-wristed policy of the West and the complete absence of deterrence," he said. "The statement by the AEOI strengthens the imperative for Israel to defend itself; in the current situation, there is no alternative to Israeli action to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat."
First of all, this will require a strike on Iran's proxy, Hezbollah, to create deterrence, Inbar said. "Following that, Israel should prepare for continued action against the Iranian nuclear threat," he added.
Meanwhile, the head of Iran's Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Kamal Kharazi, said Iran has the technical capabilities to build a nuclear bomb, but it has not decided to make one.
"It is no secret that we have the technical capabilities to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but we have not decided to do so," he said.
Kharazi, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, made the comments to Al Jazeera. The "Zionist regime" was behind the "false" rumors, he emphasized.
Last week, Khamenei's office tweeted: "The Western powers are a mafia. The reality of this power is a mafia. At the top of this mafia stand the prominent Zionist merchants, and the politicians obey them. The US is their showcase, and they're spread out everywhere."
Beyond these comments are threats that were made on a video linked to the IRGC, which appeared on Telegram several days ago. It asked: "When will Iran's sleeping nuclear warheads awaken?" It concluded that the nuclear weapons could appear at any time, "if the US or the Zionist regime make any stupid mistakes."
THE VIDEO said there is secret enrichment taking place at Fordow, allowing Iran to make weapons quickly if need be. What it actually means is that Tehran has enough highly enriched uranium to break out and have enough material to build a nuclear bomb. But how many, and has Iran ever even built one?
The Telegram video said Iran has ballistic missiles capable of "turning New York into hellish ruins." This sounds like the usual boasting and threats. Although Iran is improving its missiles, it would be hard for them to reach the United States.
Of more substance appears to be other comments by Eslami, arguing that the Iranian parliament's energy committee should create a comprehensive road map and laws for the nuclear industry so that the "nuclear development process is not damaged by the change of administrations," according to the website Iran International.
Overall, it's worth recalling that in May, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Iran was just a "few weeks" from having enough fissile material for a bomb. It was installing 1,000 advanced centrifuges at Natanz as well, he indicated. In June, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said Iran was only a few weeks away from having a "significant quantity of enriched uranium."
The "weeks" and "months" time frame has been a key talking point for years. In February, McGurk and Malley both seemed to confirm a two-month time frame, according to Politico. A House Democrat was reported to have confirmed the "weeks" breakout time. Iran was also "weeks" away from a bomb in April.
But these time frames only refer to the "breakout period" for the Islamic Republic to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. Material must be put into a device.
However, for those worried about Iran's nuclear program, the real concern is that once it has enough material, it can blackmail the region, and any attempt to neutralize the material could be dangerous. This is why the time frame may not change over the months – because Tehran is also on the verge of producing enough material.
Iran's narrative is that it can build an actual weapon, but it keeps holding the region hostage by claiming that it needs to be blackmailed not to.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.