March 24, 2023 | Policy Brief

Top General Suggests Administration Would Tolerate Iran Having Nuclear Weapons

March 24, 2023 | Policy Brief

Top General Suggests Administration Would Tolerate Iran Having Nuclear Weapons

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, said at a congressional hearing on Thursday that the United States “remains committed, as a matter of policy, that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon.” This statement, as well as a similar comment by Milley last September, suggests the Biden administration is prepared to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands, provided the weapon is not “fielded” — that is — deployed.

At the Thursday hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Gen. Milley warned, “We, the United States military, have developed multiple options for our national leadership to consider if or when Iran ever decides to develop an actual nuclear weapon.” Yet his reference to “a fielded nuclear weapon” introduced uncertainty about whether America would use force to stop Iran from breaking out of its nonproliferation commitments and producing one or more nuclear weapons.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday that a National Security Council spokeswoman told the paper, “the United States is committed to never allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” However, she did not explicitly repudiate Milley’s comment.

A shift in U.S. strategy from one of nuclear weapons denial to one of preventing their deployment — but not their production — would reflect a major policy departure. President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that the United States will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” on his watch. Former President Trump insisted, “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Former President Obama declared, “Iran will never be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon.”

In his testimony, Milley also warned, “Iran could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks and it would only take several more months to produce an actual nuclear weapon.”

While the estimate of two weeks to produce fissile material echoes other recent statements by Department of Defense officials, Milley’s warning potentially reflects a newly reduced estimate of the time it would take Tehran to fashion a nuclear explosive device. The United States and Israel have typically estimated Iran would need at least a year to accomplish weaponization of nuclear material. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community assessed in February that Iran had not resumed past nuclear weaponization work. However, the Institute for Science and International Security has estimated that due to Tehran’s past nuclear weapons work, it could explode a crude nuclear device within six months.

Tehran is too close to the nuclear threshold for mixed American messages. As of February, it had enough enriched uranium to produce weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for an estimated five nuclear weapons within three months and could make enough WGU for an additional two weapons soon after. Moreover, such a U.S. policy shift would be dangerous because the regime in Tehran may see it as a green light to move toward nuclear weapons production.

If U.S. policy remains unchanged, then the White House should explicitly correct Milley’s comments. The administration should make clear that the United States is prepared to use force should Tehran attempt to produce atomic bombs.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and deputy director of its Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program. For more analysis from the author and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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