The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan bears important implications for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s perception of America as a threat. Encouraged by Washington’s loss of credibility and resolve to counter its adversaries in South Asia and the Middle East, Tehran may calculate that there is no better time to acquire a nuclear weapon.
America’s departure from Afghanistan and planned drawdown of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq come in the wake of Washington’s failure to respond to a series of Iranian provocations, including Tehran’s maritime aggression in the Persian Gulf and attempted kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in New York. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had advanced its work on enriched uranium metal, a key step toward developing an atomic bomb. The agency also reported that Tehran increased its production of 60 percent highly enriched uranium, a short step from weapons-grade.
In this context, Iran’s response to America’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq is instructive. Documentation from Iran’s nuclear archive, seized by the Israeli Mossad from a Tehran warehouse in 2018, showed that the Islamic Republic originally planned to make several 10-kiloton deliverable nuclear weapons by 2003. Yet when the United States attacked Iraq, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei likely scrapped these plans. Washington had attacked Iraq on the basis of ending an alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction, and Tehran’s leaders feared that Iran could be America’s next target.
Instead, the clerical regime — including the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom Israel assassinated last year — held a series of meetings in August and September 2003 and decided to disperse, preserve, and advance a more limited set of nuclear weaponization activities at research institutes and military sites. Simultaneously, Iran would maintain key fissile material production infrastructure and ballistic missile delivery work. These steps would enable Tehran to dash toward a nuclear weapon should it eventually make the decision to do so.
International pressure also influenced Iran’s willingness to develop nuclear weapons. In 2002, the world learned that the regime had two covert nuclear sites — a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant near Arak. Facing global criticism, Iran permitted the IAEA in February 2003 to conduct inspections at these and additional sites.
Since then, Tehran has accelerated its nuclear program at various points to pressure and extort the West but has not crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.
Yet with America’s presence now waning in South Asia and the Middle East and Washington making clear its unwillingness to expend significant national resources to confront regional threats, the conditions that once led the Islamic Republic to slow down its nuclear weapons development may no longer apply. Tehran’s recent provocative nuclear advances suggest it is already testing U.S. and European resolve.
The United States and its European partners must immediately reconstitute pressure on Iran’s nuclear program. They should lead IAEA member states in passing a new Board of Governors resolution this September to demand the cessation of Iran’s threatening nuclear steps and to require Tehran’s cooperation regarding recent IAEA discoveries of undeclared uranium at three sites. Since June 2020, fearful of interfering with now-stalled Iran nuclear talks, the IAEA board has not acted to censure Tehran.
To support these demands, the United States and its partners must be willing to restore UN Security Council sanctions resolutions on Iran lifted by the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Biden administration should also review and enhance its intelligence gathering capabilities on Iran’s nuclear weapons plans. The administration should continue coordinating closely with Israel, which typically gathers top information on Iran’s atomic activities and intentions. Washington should also make clear that it will use military force to stop an Iranian nuclear breakout.
Iran is considering its next moves in the vacuum of America’s presence. Washington and its European partners should make clear that they still have the determination to deny the Islamic Republic a nuclear weapon.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where 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 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.