Updated Aug 3, 2022 - World

Renewed debate in Tehran about producing nuclear bomb

Illustration of a question mark with a nuclear symbol as the dot on the bottom.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Several senior Iranian officials and politicians have opened the door over the last two weeks to the possibility of producing nuclear weapons — despite the fact that Iran has long maintained it will never do so.

Driving the news: Iran says Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa — a legal Islamic ruling — against nuclear weapons. But in an unusual statement on Tuesday, Iranian MP Mohammad-Reza Sabbaghian Bafghi warned that Parliament could ask Khamenei to revise his fatwa if Iran's "enemies... continue their threats."

  • That followed a string of statements from other political figures saying Iran could produce a nuclear weapon if it so chose.

What they're saying: “It is no secret that we have the technical capabilities to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but we have no decision to do so," former Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, who now heads Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera two weeks ago.

  • Soon after, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a former diplomat and an adviser to Khamenei, said Khamenei's fatwa doesn’t allow the pursuit of nuclear weapons — “but if we want to do this, no one can stop us."
  • Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, then joined the debate. He reiterated that Iran has the technical capability to build a nuclear bomb but stressed it has no intention of doing so.
  • Eslami's spokesperson later clarified that his remarks were misunderstood. "Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons due to its strategic capabilities, and will never move towards this direction," he said.
  • Last Sunday, an unofficial Telegram channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps posted a warning that if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked, Iran could immediately return to the AMAD project, Iran’s clandestine effort to build a nuclear bomb which was shut down in 2003.

The other side: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made an unusual statement of his own during an event with Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, hinting at Israel’s nuclear weapons.

  • “The operational arena in the invisible dome above us is built on defensive capabilities and offensive capabilities, and what the foreign media tends to call ‘other capabilities.’ These other capabilities keep us alive and will keep us alive so long as we and our children are here," Lapid said.

Between the lines: Raz Zimmt, a top Israeli expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University, said the "unusual" and "concerning" Iranian statements are largely a response to Israel's increasing threats of a potential military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

  • “However, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility for a renewed debate among Iranian decision-makers about the possibility of changing Tehran's nuclear strategy, 19 years after it decided to freeze its military nuclear program," Zimmt told me.

Go deeper: Iran nuclear talks to resume in Vienna on Thursday

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