The Islamic Republic of Iran has significantly progressed in its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently disclosed the findings of its latest inspection, indicating that the regime had enriched uranium to a purity level of 84 percent. This level is close to the weapons-grade standard of 90 percent, implying that any accumulation of such material could be employed to manufacture an atomic bomb should the regime decide to cross that line.
The emergence of this threat sparks questions about whether the Biden administration’s current Iran policy can effectively prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The more pressing concern is determining alternative strategies to address the threat if the policy falls short of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear warhead.
Based on the IAEA’s report, Iran has installed advanced centrifuges at one of its fuel enrichment plants and increased the production of enriched uranium up to 84 percent. Iran’s total stockpile of enriched uranium now exceeds the allowable limit under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the IAEA’s capacity to efficiently monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and verify that they are solely used for peaceful purposes is compromised. CIA director William Burns has cautioned that the Islamic Republic is moving closer to obtaining the necessary components for a nuclear weapon. During testimony to lawmakers, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl stated that Iran has the capability to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear bomb in approximately twelve days.
In addition to the uranium enrichment program, Iran’s ballistic missile program has been advancing at an alarming rate. The regime has been increasing its long-range missile capabilities in recent years, which could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear warhead. This development is a cause for concern as it suggests that Iran is steadily moving toward becoming a nuclear power with the ability to threaten regional and global security.
Intelligence reports suggest that Iran is actively developing hypersonic missiles that have the potential to travel at speeds up to 15 times the speed of sound with remarkable accuracy. These missiles could also be configured to carry a nuclear warhead, further adding to the global concern regarding Iran’s weapons capabilities. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the former head of U.S. Central Command who oversaw military planning for dealing with Iran, said the country has amassed “over 3,000 ballistic missiles of varying types, some of which have the potential to reach Tel Aviv.” Many of these missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This development further underscores the growing concerns regarding Iran’s military capabilities and the potential threats they pose to regional and global security.
Moreover, Iran has likely attempted to develop the third component of a nuclear weapons program: warhead design, which involves constructing a nuclear warhead at the top of a missile. The IAEA previously reported that Iran experimented with advanced nuclear detonation technology, but regime scientists encountered technical obstacles during the experiment. It is plausible that such activities are still ongoing clandestinely, but IAEA inspectors have been unable to detect them.
Detecting a secret warhead design program is challenging because it does not require the use of nuclear materials, which are the primary focus of the IAEA’s safeguards. Warhead design can be conducted using non-nuclear means and in facilities that are not declared to the IAEA, making it harder for inspectors to detect such activities. Furthermore, accessing sensitive military-related sites is essential to detect secret warhead designs. Still, the Islamic Republic has refused to grant access to such sites to inspectors, further complicating the process.
Given the difficulty in detecting progress in this area, it is possible that the Iranian regime has continued with the project and resolved the technical challenges involved in warhead design.
Had the Biden administration taken a more robust approach toward the Islamic Republic, the regime would not have made such significant progress in its nuclear program.
The absence of a strong and assertive response to the nuclear advancements has only served to embolden the regime and encourage it to push the administration on other matters, whether through conducting terrorist attacks within the United States or issuing threats of military aggression against the West.
According to a recent report by the Department of Justice, the regime had conspired with a transnational criminal element to assassinate American citizens, including former U.S. officials in the Trump administration. Regime officials, including the chief of the Quds Force—the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—and the commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, have indicated their steadfast commitment to continue their malicious activities on American soil.
Given their perception of Biden’s strategy as ineffective, the Islamic Republic felt emboldened to become involved in the conflict in Ukraine without fear of a forceful U.S. response. The regime has been supplying Russia with hundreds of Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, which were manufactured in Iran. These drones have been employed by the Russian military to strike urban areas and vital facilities in Ukraine, contributing to the destruction of almost half of the country’s electricity supply and depleting Ukrainian resources.
Making the situation even more alarming, the IRGC has escalated its hostile language and threats toward Europe, claiming that it has the capability to strike Europe by expanding the range of its missiles. According to Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards has the ability to increase the range of its missiles and “strike them seriously,” although it has refrained from doing so thus far. While providing weaponry to Russia is indeed an act of hostility against Europe, the IRGC’s explicit threats and declarations of their ability to target European nations represent a more explicit threat and a clear indication of their willingness to engage in a military confrontation with Europe.
The regime’s ruinous involvement in Ukraine and the IRGC’s hostile language and threats toward the United States and Europe, as well as plotting terror attacks on American soil, ought to have solidified Western opinion and Biden’s stance that the present strategy toward Iran is inadequate and necessitates a dramatic change.
In light of the circumstances, the essential issue is what steps the United States and its European partners can take to stop Iran’s hostile actions and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
It is imperative to admit in the first place that the Islamic Republic has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear program, ending its support for the conflict in Ukraine, or halting its terrorist operations in the West and the United States. In the event of a lack of diplomatic efforts, it is crucial for Europe and the U.S. government to establish a potent and credible deterrence capable of forcing the regime to stop its nuclear pursuits. Even from the non-proliferation perspective, restoring the JCPOA at the present stage wouldn’t impede the regime’s capability to build the bomb but accelerate it.
Additionally, the Islamic Republic is confronted with multiple crises that span social, economic, political, and environmental domains. Given the deteriorating economic conditions and the lack of hope for significant reforms in Iran, it is highly likely that a fresh wave of protests could emerge in the not-too-distant future. It is of utmost importance for the U.S. government and Europe to publicly express their support for Iranian protestors and undertake concrete actions to aid Iranians in their pursuit of democracy.
Moreover, the IRGC is a terrorist group that is actively attempting to execute terrorist attacks in both the United States and Europe. Given that it has already been recognized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the United States, the Biden administration should use its diplomatic influence to persuade European allies to also label the IRGC as such.
Finally, to exert additional pressure on the regime, it is necessary for the United States and Europe to transfer the nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council and activate the snapback provision of the JCPOA, thereby reinstating UN sanctions on Iran that were lifted after the accord’s implementation. Such a move would not only financially strain the regime but also hinder its ability to finance its repressive machinery that suppresses civilian protestors.
Any approach that falls short of implementing these measures would allow the Islamic Republic to persist with its malevolent activities.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at Philos Project.