Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gave an unprecedentedly harsh warning about Iran’s nuclear program during his visit to Washington, DC this week.
“At the center of my visit here is the concern over Iran’s race to nuclear capability,” he said Wednesday during his trilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Minister of Foreign Affairs. UAE Foreign Affairs Abdullah Bin Zayed. “Iran is becoming a nuclear threshold state. “
Lapid gave the same warning about Iran to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
He has used nuclear threshold terminology in the past, but has not previously claimed that Iran is in fact close to taking that step.
In July, Lapid reportedly told US officials that “Iran is moving rapidly towards the nuclear threshold.” In Russia in September, Lapid declared that “Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear state or even a nuclear threshold state.”
It seems that something has changed in Lapid’s assessment of the position of Iran’s nuclear program, or that he at least wants to give that impression. There is a new urgency in Lapid’s message.
The problem is that it is not at all clear what the term “nuclear threshold state” really means and, therefore, it is not easy to determine whether Iran is suitable.
Initially used to designate countries in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons beyond the five nuclear powers recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the idea of “nuclear threshold state” has developed a series of definitions.
An author defined it as a state “which could rapidly operationalize its peaceful nuclear program into a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon”.
Some believe the term actually has positive connotations. A review of non-proliferation in 2010 item defines a nuclear threshold state as one which has “chosen nuclear restraint despite significant nuclear capacity”.
Japan and Brazil are cited as excellent examples of threshold states because they have the know-how but choose not to pursue nuclear weapons.
The question is whether Lapid is correct in applying the term to Iran. A 2014 Naval Postgraduate School thesis claimed it was accurate just seven years ago, stating at the time that “Iran has the capabilities to produce military grade materiel and could be considered a state. at the nuclear threshold ”.
A year after the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – the JCPOA – researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies linked to Tel Aviv University wrote that with the agreement, “Iran has succeeded in establishing its status as a legitimate nuclear threshold state.”
Lapid and other Israeli leaders focus almost exclusively on Iranian capabilities in their public statements.
This approach, shared by some nuclear specialists, is far too narrow and fails to capture the complex factors that go into States’ decisions on nuclear weapons.
The concept of nuclear threshold “is very multidimensional, taking into account its simultaneous political, military, diplomatic, strategic, industrial, scientific and technical characteristics”, wrote nuclear expert Bernard Sitt in 2013. “It also refers to discourse or postures of deterrence that vary from one proliferating state to another, which therefore require interpretation, analysis and specific responses to the crises that ensue.
“If you set a threshold state like one that has enough fissile material to allow it to create a nuclear bomb, they’re already there,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iranian researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.
There are three main stages that a country must go through to acquire a nuclear weapon: acquire enough fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium); build a detonator; and manufacturing the delivery mechanism, such as a ballistic missile.
The fissile material stage is the only one on which the world has solid information regarding Iran. Uranium enrichment is subject to international inspection and Iran has bragged about its progress. The last two steps are not controlled by the IAEA, leaving policy makers to rely on estimates.
Iran could enrich enough fissile material for a bomb in a month or two, said Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security in America, “but it won’t become a true threshold state. only when this delay is reduced to close to – zero. “
IDF Military Intelligence, for example, estimates that it would take Iran two years to build a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so, due to a lack of progress on the militarization stages, which were halted in 2003 and could still be frozen.
“Iran is coming closer in training to make enriched uranium metal,” Ruhe said, “but other than that we don’t know exactly how far Tehran is in this process as it continues to block investigators.”
This opacity is clearly part of Iran’s strategy, allowing it to avoid international pressure and sanctions.
Lapid has yet to explain how he defines a nuclear threshold state. And the ambiguity and the possibility of disparate definitions make warnings about Iran reaching the nuclear threshold much less meaningful than it initially appears.
“It’s just a matter of interpreting what a threshold state is,” Zimmt stressed.
Talking about options
The other phrase that dominated Lapid’s visit was that of “other options” – in case diplomacy fails to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
“Other options will be on the table if diplomacy fails,” Lapid said at the joint press conference. “In saying other options, I think everyone understands here in Israel, the Emirates and Tehran what we mean.”
Lapid added in Hebrew that his three-day trip to Washington focused on “the other options,” but did not repeat this line in his English comments.
Blinken also raised the possibility of more aggressive action: “We will continue to examine all options to face the challenge posed by Iran. We believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve this, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy. “
While diplomats didn’t explain what they meant by “other options,” there isn’t much room for interpretation here. There are really only three ways to delay – since it is virtually impossible to stop – a nuclear weapons program.
The first is economic pressure, mainly in the form of sanctions, which is the main American effort today. Although the sanctions have caused serious damage to the Iranian economy, they are unlikely to fundamentally change the regime’s actions. “Let’s tell the truth,” Zimmt said. “Iran has the capacity to survive economic sanctions. Tehran has made it through Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and feels it can handle anything Biden can throw at them.
The second way to delay Iran’s nuclear program is through covert attacks. Some of these operations – particularly the November 2020 assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – caused significant delays, but most, like the 2021 attacks on the Natanz facility, only delay progress by a few. months or in fact accelerate the Iranian program by causing to replace the old centrifuges.
And of course, there is the military option. But the Biden administration is trying to reduce its engagement in the Middle East, not to spark new conflicts, and the United States is highly unlikely to strike during Biden’s tenure.
Israel’s implicit threat to use military force is “inherently more credible than Washington’s,” Ruhe explained.
While the Americans can strike but won’t, Israel could possibly attack, but it is far from certain that it can succeed. There are subtle clues emerging that Israel does not feel ready to strike.
Over the past 10 months, the IDF has said it is updating its “operational plans” for a military strike against Iran, a sign that its leadership recognizes that the military was not fully prepared for an attack. attack.
A senior government official also said this summer that Bennett has focused on narrowing the gaps in strike capabilities that have emerged under previous governments.
With a nuclear deal less and less likely, the other options become more relevant. But for now, they appear unrealistic or ineffective, making the threat to Iran far less threatening than the Israeli and American leaders would like.