July 21, 2022 | Policy Brief

Iranian Official Claims Tehran Has Nuclear Threshold Status

July 21, 2022 | Policy Brief

Iranian Official Claims Tehran Has Nuclear Threshold Status

A foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader said on Sunday, “It is no secret that we have become a nuclear threshold country. This is the reality. This is the fact.” This statement implies Tehran is so close to developing nuclear weapons that if it seeks to do so, foreign powers may not be able to stop it.

The Iranian adviser, Kamal Kharrazi, qualified his comments by claiming that while the Islamic Republic has “the required technological capabilities to produce a nuclear bomb,” the regime does “not want that” and has “not decided to do so.” These remarks are consistent with past statements by Iranian officials distinguishing Tehran’s nuclear capabilities from its desire to produce a bomb. However, Iran’s threats to develop a nuclear weapon have become more direct since 2021.

Since President Joe Biden took office, the Islamic Republic has made numerous nuclear technical advances but has faced little pressure from Washington as the administration prioritized diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord. Talks stalled in March and resumed briefly in June without success.

Tehran may have used the nuclear talks to buy time to advance its nuclear program. Iran successfully warded off international censure for two years while amassing enriched uranium, perfecting its breakout capabilities, and overtly — and perhaps secretly — making technical progress in the delicate process of weaponizing nuclear material.

In April 2021, Tehran began enriching uranium to 60 percent purity — just short of weapons-grade. As of May 2022, the Islamic Republic possessed enough enriched uranium for five nuclear bombs. It also installed thousands of advanced centrifuge machines for uranium enrichment at three sites.

International inspectors reported this month that Iran had enriched uranium to 20 percent purity using a new set of its fastest centrifuge machines, the IR-6, located at the underground Fordow facility. The machines allow for easy modification to produce 90 percent enriched uranium, the ideal purity for nuclear weapons. Tehran also limited monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, and hardened its nuclear program against aerial attacks and sabotage.

From the late 1990s until 2003, Iran had a nuclear weapons program known as the Amad Plan. After international exposure in 2002, the regime planned to downsize but better camouflage its nuclear efforts. Tehran has likely made progress in weaponization since 2003, and U.S., European, and Israeli government estimates of Iran’s current timeline to weaponize nuclear material are largely based on extrapolations of its current capabilities. The regime may even be able to explode a crude nuclear device in under six months.

With the Biden administration distracted by the war in Ukraine and competing domestic priorities, Tehran may surmise that now is its best chance to dash toward a bomb.

During a recent visit to Israel, Biden signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, indicating the United States “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” Biden also asserted in an interview he would use force as a “last resort.” His Israeli counterparts made firmer commitments to prevent Iran’s program from progressing further. “If they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force,” said Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Biden should articulate a cogent U.S. policy to deter Iranian nuclear advances before Tehran attempts a breakout. He should clarify the conditions in which he would contemplate using force — for example, Tehran’s operation of a covert enrichment site, hindering of IAEA access to safeguarded nuclear facilities, or withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Biden should also revive the campaign of economic sanctions that forced Iran to make concessions in the past.

Absent the credible threat of military action and other penalties, the clerical regime may be tempted to move forward with producing a nuclear weapon.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). She also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program, International Organizations Program, and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea, the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program, the Iran Program, the International Organizations Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Military and Political Power Nonproliferation