Iran’s new nuclear policy between deterrence and pragmatism

The recent escalation in tensions between Israel and Iran has sparked concerns about a potential shift in Tehran’s strategy toward full weaponization of its nuclear program. On April 14, in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed seven Iranians, including Quds Force Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, Iran launched over 300 drones and ballistic missiles against Israel, in its first ever direct attack on the country. Given Israel’s reportedly sizable, undeclared nuclear arsenal, analysts have interpreted this move as a sign that Iran intends on becoming a declared nuclear power.

From strategic patience to active deterrence

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines the threshold for creating an atomic bomb as approximately 42 kg of uranium enriched up to a purity of 60%. The latest IAEA report indicates that Iran possesses 121 kg of uranium enriched to this level — enough for nearly three bombs. Despite Iran’s claim that it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, it remains the only country enriching uranium at this level without a confirmed nuclear weapons program. Maintaining its status as a threshold nuclear power is likely to be Iran’s chosen strategy under the current circumstances. This is in line with the country’s new proactive and preemptive grand strategy, as compared to its previous approach of strategic patience.

While Iran previously refrained from directly retaliating against Israel for its alleged covert operations, including assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and operatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it has decided to adopt a new stance. In the words of Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, “Henceforth if Israel attacks our interests, assets, figures, and citizens anywhere, it will be met with a counterattack from within the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The failure of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Israel’s alleged covert activities in Iran in recent years have led Tehran to abandon its policy of strategic patience, no longer willing to fight a shadow war by relying on its regional non-state allies. Recent incidents, such as Iran’s mid-January missile strike on Pakistan in response to a Jaish al-Adl terrorist attack on the port city of Chabahar and its mid-April drone and missile strike on Israel, reflect a change in Iran’s stance and a new willingness to take more assertive measures. According to a post on the social media platform X by Mohammad Jamshidi, President Ebrahim Raisi’s deputy chief of staff, “Iran’s era of strategic patience is over.”

However, contrary to many analysts’ fears, Iran is aware of the benefits of remaining a latent nuclear power, rather than becoming an openly declared one. As the Iranian authorities see things, possessing threshold nuclear capabilities will not only deter large-scale military attacks but also provide greater leverage in negotiations with the United States and other adversaries. In addition, it could reinvigorate the possibility of regional de-escalation and improve bilateral relations with important neighbors, processes that have been underway since March 2023, following the China-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Being a threshold nuclear power and its deterrence benefits

Iranian officials clearly believe that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not necessary to deter a direct attack by Israel, as its ability to launch a large-scale assault on Iran without US support is limited by geopolitical constraints. Both the US and Iran have been highly reluctant to engage in a direct, large-scale conflict since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attacks on Israeli soil, which sparked a spiraling escalation in the region. Since Oct. 7, Tehran and Washington have managed to handle regional tensions relatively successfully.

Following Iran’s retaliatory strike on Israel, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian assured the US that Iran had no intention of targeting American bases in the region, and Washington reiterated its stance of non-participation in Israel’s offensive operations against Iran. From Iran’s perspective, Israel’s attack on an air base in Isfahan on April 19 was a clear attempt at sabotage. According to Iranian media, this incident, similar to a previous operation reportedly carried out by the Israelis in January 2023, involved small drones believed to have originated from within Iranian territory. Iranian officials assert that their air defense system successfully intercepted and destroyed the drones mid-flight.

In response to perceived threats from the US and Israel in the region, Iran has employed a combination of internal and external balancing strategies that has effectively safeguarded its security thus far. In terms of internal balancing, Iran relies on enrichment and reprocessing facilities like other latent nuclear states, such as Japan. Nuclear latency refers to states with the potential ability to assemble a nuclear arsenal in a relatively short period of time in the event of an existential threat. By maintaining the ability to rapidly build nuclear weapons without actually doing so, a policy known as the “Japan Option,” Iran remains in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, Iran also relies on its conventional military strength and the exploitation of strategic geopolitical assets. In terms of external balancing, Tehran has built a network of partners and allies across the Middle East who share the common goal of countering US and Israeli hegemony. Iranian policymakers view these internal and external components as interconnected, creating a stable equilibrium to safeguard Iran’s security and interests.

Iran’s defense doctrine is based on the concept of active deterrence, whereby a predetermined countermeasure is carried out if deterrence alone fails, thus reinforcing deterrence of further actions by belligerent actors. In this regard, the recent tit-for-tat exchange of missile strikes between Iran and Israel does not signify a major shift away from this doctrine and toward nuclear armament, but rather signals a new stage in an ongoing active deterrence approach. Israel’s emphasis on keeping the scope of conflict limited and the American commitment to non-involvement in military engagements with Iran indicate that the doctrine has been effective in deterring broader military action against Iran thus far.

As a threshold nuclear power, Iran maintains strategic ambiguity around its nuclear capabilities and can use this as a political bargaining chip. According to the IAEA, from June 2023 on, Iran reduced the rate at which it was enriching uranium (up to 60%) for a few months, before reversing course in November 2023 and increasing the rate of production of enriched uranium (up to 60%) to 9 kg per month. The most recent report from the IAEA indicates that while Iran has been enriching uranium at the same rate since the beginning of 2024, it also downblended about 31.8 kg of its 60%-enriched uranium stockpile, reducing its total reserves by 6.8 kg.

These fluctuations in the production and reserves of enriched uranium suggest that clandestine negotiations and agreements between Iran and the United States may have been taking place in recent months. Despite the ongoing war in Gaza, Iran managed to export approximately 1.56 million barrels of oil per day in the first three months of 2024, the greatest volume since late 2018. While Iran has been able to master various methods of circumventing sanctions during this period, it seems that the Biden administration is reluctant to enforce strict secondary sanction measures that would further impede Iranian oil sales.

Deterrence against the US-Israel bloc

While the war in Gaza has provided Iran with new opportunities to affect regional power dynamics, being a threshold nuclear power does not impose extra costs on it. Rather, it provides Tehran with significant leverage if external pressures increase. As such, Iran’s nuclear capabilities serve as both a deterrent and a bargaining tool. Currently, Tehran views the United States and Israel as its primary external threats. Consequently, it shapes its regional security strategies with these two nuclear powers in mind. As a component of this approach, Tehran endeavors to reduce threat perceptions among its Arab neighbors by implementing a neighborhood policy and initiating confidence-building measures, such as expanding bilateral diplomatic relations.

Iran seeks to continue strengthening its relations with its neighbors, break out of its political isolation, and, to some extent, address its lagging economic development. Its economy, hindered by sanctions, needs to be revived, and in this context, Tehran remains acutely aware of the material and relative costs of declaring itself a nuclear power. The suspicions of analysts, predicting a surge in Tehran’s enriched uranium production, may be unmerited given the many benefits that Iran could reap from remaining a threshold power.

Nevertheless, there is a real prospect that Iran could become a nuclear power — a move that would have dire implications — and this is more likely to occur if or when Iran perceives a threat to its security that cannot be adequately managed by its existing use of active deterrence. Were the US and Israel to jointly carry out a significant military strike targeting Iran’s key nuclear and military installations, this could render Tehran’s current deterrence strategy unviable, ineffective, and unsustainable. On April 18, Gen. Ahmad Haqtalab, commander of the Nuclear Centers Protection and Security Corps, stated that if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran may seriously reassess its nuclear strategy.

There are several steps key regional players could take that would ensure this does not happen. First and foremost, resuming diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and establishing clear rules for preventing its weaponization, in return for a reduction in the scale and impact of economic sanctions, would benefit all stakeholders. Second, as an additional step, encouraging neighboring countries, particularly Gulf Cooperation Council member states, to develop constructive diplomatic and economic relations with Iran would discourage Tehran from pursuing further uranium enrichment, disincentivize engagement in more small-scale military confrontations, and build on Iran’s tentative commitment to assume the role of a responsible regional actor. Finally, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as distant as that might seem right now in the midst of war, would be a crucial step toward mitigating the risk of escalating tensions between Israel and Iran as well as alleviating the heated security crisis that currently plagues the region.

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