Iran: The Bomb is Ticking

Dr Mohammed Al Zaabi

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not represent those of France, nor those of the FMES Institute, but of the author who spent a month at the FMES Institute as part of his degree at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi University.


Iran’s advancement in nuclear and ballistic missile programs has raised concerns not only in the Middle East, but also in the western hemisphere. Despite the world denunciations, Iran continues the development of both programs. Regional powers see such programs as a threat to regional stability, international peace and security, and consider it an existential dilemma. The international community must confront Iran and not let it subvert peace and security. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, a nuclear arm race in the Middle East is inevitable. Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are the runner-ups. Furthermore, Israel is existentially the most provoked State in the Middle East.


The talks on the Iranian Nuclear deal are on the verge of collapsing. Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that the possibility of a deal to revive the nuclear deal with Iran is diminishing. The international community has expressed its worries if there is no deal. Rafael Grossi, IAEA Director General, stated that Iran’s access to the capabilities needed to build a nuclear weapon is a matter of time, and the information given to the IAEA by Iran is just not enough. The Iranian nuclear program has been under great suspicion by the international community, and it requires serious measures to ensure international peace and security in the Middle East. The negotiations taken place in Vienna are not very promising, and the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power is looming on the horizon. Will the world awaken, or will it release the Kraken?


The world still suffers from legacy of the Cold War. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics wooed many nations in order to secure as many allies as they could through various programs; India, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea to name a few. In December 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower announced a historical event that would change world peace. Under the hall of the United Nations, he presented to the world a program; Atoms for Peace, to commit the US to assist other nations establishing their own nuclear programs for peaceful use. He said:

 “…if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all”.

Although “Atom for Peace” Program had high goals, it caused the world many problems; Pakistan, India, and North Korea are mere example to how “Atoms for Peace” turned such states to be nuclear weapon states instead. 


In 1957, the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi being a strong US ally, Iran was among those who enrolled in the program. The program laid the foundation for Iran’s nuclear program through the transfer of nuclear technology, research reactors, nuclear fuel equipment laboratories, and scientific training. Only in 1967 did Iran receive its first nuclear reactor, 5 megawatts known as Tehran Research reactor powered by high-grade enriched uranium (HEU) with a capacity to produce 600 grams of Plutonium yearly. A year later, Iran has signed the non-proliferation treaty of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The Shah evidently strengthened Iran’s nuclear program by insuring in-house nuclear R&D through the establishment of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. In 1973, he announced a plan to build 20 nuclear power reactors, a uranium enrichment facility, and other auxiliary premises with an ambitious goal to achieve 23 Gigawatts of electric power before the end of the millennium. Iran continued its hefty investment in its nuclear program. In 1974, a German contractor, Siemens, signed a contract to build a nuclear plant with two reactors at the Iranian city, Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. In 1976, Iran became a stakeholder with fifteen percent of shares in the RTZ uranium mine Rossing in Namibia and acquired ten percent of stakes in the Eurodif Tricastin uranium enrichment plant in France. In addition, it purchased seven hundred million dollars’ worth of the so-called yellow cake from South Africa. Today, Iran nuclear program has the capability to produce weapon-grade uranium. Consequently, Iran’s nuclear program has thus far crossed the Rubicon. It had matured in various aspects from the transfer of technology, to training, infrastructure, supply chain mechanism, and ownership of raw materials.


In 1979, a revolution spurred by the Ayatollahs, Shia religious scholars, led to the overthrown of the Shah’s regime and placed the Ayatollah’s in power transforming Iran from a US ally to becoming a US Foe. Eventually, the US and its allies ceased cooperation with the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, the Ayatollah regime continued to advance the nuclear program through illicit networks. Such networks involve the renegades such as North Korea, Pakistan, Libya and part of the suspected so-called Abdul Qadir Khan’s underground nuclear network during the 1980’s. Such networks also helped Iran gain access to other programs like the North Korea missile program that seems logical to complement its nuclear program and fits into its leadership’s ambitious plans. Unsurprisingly, many intelligence reports have leaked plans of the Iranian regime’s intention to acquire nuclear weapon expertise. Yet more, many intelligence agencies such as the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), and the US National Intelligence have warned and predicted that the Iranian regime is few years away to construct its first nuclear bomb.


Iran like other States has its own reasons to seek nuclear weapon capabilities. The regime’s structure and its political stance converge to the necessity in obtaining nuclear weaponry. Even more, the collaborative work with North Korea on both missile and nuclear programs have yielded to Iran’s greater goal to be a nuclear power. In addition, the regime has a deep sense of insecurity coming from the turbulent geopolitical relations with its surrounding region; the eight-year war with Iraq, and the superpowers internationally. Besides, the war with Iraq by the coalition contributed to the advancement further in that direction secretively. Subsequently, Iran’s infiltration into geo-strategical areas such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and to some extent Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are evidence of a master plan and desire for regional supremacy. The transition of a peaceful nuclear energy and research programs to a military nuclear program has required a great deal from the Ayatollah regime clandestinely and diplomatically. An undisclosed cooperation between Russian scientists and their Iranian counterpart continued in many projects such as Natanz Enrichment Complex, and the 40 megawatts heavy water research reactor at Arak and many other locations kept on surfacing to the international community: the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ever since the fall of the Shah’s regime, Iran has been under constant investigation by the IAEA, US sanctions, and UN Security Council resolutions. Eventually, the international community on many lawful grounds has accused Iran of malpractice (non-cooperation, or non-compliance) and sanctioned its nuclear program. Nonetheless, Iran has long experiences in evading such imposition. Utilizing its diplomatic skills, Iran has entered into a trail of agreements and negotiations until 2015; the year of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


Also known as the Iranian nuclear deal, JCPOA is an agreement among the following nations: US, France, UK, Russia, China, Germany and Iran (5+1 & Iran). It consists of a 25-year nuclear agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in order to lift the imposed sanctions. Despite the imposed economic sanctions, Iran has continued advancing its nuclear program. Concerned nations have tried to persuade Iran to initiate a dialogue and to regain trust of the international community that its nuclear program is of a peaceful nature, but none has resulted in a formal agreement. In 2013, the former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his desire to bridge the gap between Iran’s truthful intentions of peaceful nuclear program and gaining a mutual understanding of the necessity utilizing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Vienna, in July of 2015, the JCPOA parties, (P5+1 & Iran), sealed a deal in an effort to slow Iran’s progress towards the development of nuclear weapon through the reduction of uranium enrichment activities. The deal has survived many hurdles to be implementable with several violations to the deal, then prolonged negotiations and paused periods that benefited Iran to gain more time in its race to achieve a weapon-grade highly enriched uranium. Until today, and after 7 years, the deal has encountered many challenges and created a case of mistrust due to the many surfacing evidence of Iran’s regime misconduct such as secret centrifugal facilities, the presence of uranium substances in undisclosed areas, and many others. Presently, it is idling with little or no hope for the deal resurrection again. The deal safely aims to witness a peaceful nuclear program of Iran not to be overturned into a nuclear weapon program. 


Many spectators who are following the negotiations are convinced that the deal is close to be announced as “no deal”. Iran in its case is benefiting so far in gaining time that is highly valuable in order to break the threshold and officially enter the nuclear club much like its precedents: India Pakistan, and North Korea. Nevertheless, what supports such a conclusion? There are series of factors that tend to lean towards the deal’s failure.

 First is the strengthened influence of hardliners inside the Iranian parliament. Many years of tension between Iran and the United States have proven that the greater the American pressure and threats to the Iranian regime, the harder the extreme fundamentalist conservative movement can tighten its grip on Iran’s internal affairs. In addition, more obstacles are hindering the efforts to establish channels of communication with the (P5+1), or reaching deals, or a common understanding with them. The economic sanctions imposed on Iran have given this faction the opportunity to campaign against the former president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, and the moderate movement. This became all too apparent during Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, accusing them of reaching a deal that included significant concessions by Iran in exchange for the few economic returns it has received. The result of the late presidential election held in June 2021, has strengthened the influence of the extreme fundamentalist conservative movement. This movement supported President Ibrahim Raisi winning the post of the Presidency, who constantly confirms that the Iranian economy will not depend on the nuclear agreement and that Iran will not rely on its relations with European Union, or the lifting of United States sanctions.

Second, this is due to the escalating instability in the region. The failure of the efforts to reach a final agreement in Vienna may lead to an escalation of instability in the Middle East, especially as Iran plays a key role in crisis countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. To raise the cost of failure, Iran may tend to target US interests in some of these countries, especially through pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and/ or the US allies in the region, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In addition, it could lead to a new war in the region, mainly in the observance of the continuation of Iranian nuclear activities. Such activities will contribute to the exacerbation of other crises such as the continued flow of refugees, drugs, and migrants from the region to Europe, and thus increasing the risk of carrying out new terrorist attacks both in the region and within the European Union too. Iran doesn’t remarkably seem to be keen on ruling this possibility out, as it is evident in its insistence on developing its missile program and leave it off negotiation table. During negotiation, Iran has made several provocative announcements.

To mention a few:

 1. In December of 2021, it announced the Simorgh rocket space launch.

2. In February of 2022, it announced a new indigenous surface-to-surface missile, “Khiber Shaken” with a range of 1,450 kilometers.

Astonishingly, in April 2022, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi made a confrontational statement at a ceremony revealing nine nuclear achievements as part of Iran’s national day of nuclear technology. He said that Iran’s nuclear technology is “irreversible” and search in the nuclear field shall not abide to other’s requests. This is a clear defiant message to the United States’ imposed sanctions, and the pressure of more continues, Iran can still develop its own technology, launch long-range missiles, and advance its own nuclear capability indigenously.

Third is the growing roles of other powers in the region. The failure of Iran negotiations may strengthen the influence of many regional and international powers in the Middle East such as Turkey, and Russia. Especially the latter, which seeks to regain its status as an international superpower, which explains some aspects of its policy towards the Ukrainian crisis. It is also close to “the edge of abyss”, mainly after Russia’s decision, in February of 2022, to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk republics as independent States.

Forth is the Biden administration declining popularity. It has created a sense of failure to salvage the nuclear deal and a major blow to President Joe Biden as his foreign policy decisions have come under increased scrutiny, especially in the wake of the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and the escalation of the Ukraine crisis. Taken together, these developments could directly affect President Biden’s fortunes in the upcoming US mid-term elections.

Then, there is the impact of the outcomes of the talks on the Ukraine crisis, there have not yet been direct US, or even NATO comments, talking about the expected effects of the negotiating tracks on the Ukraine crisis. However, the possibility of reaching an agreement in Vienna could ease the energy crisis created by the Russian military operations, and the combined US- EU sanctions on Russia. Paradoxically, Iran is coming out stronger and in much better position than ever to negotiate the deal. That is due to its possible role in easing up energy market prices if the sanctions on its oil and gas industry are lifted.


Many countries have started secretly their own nuclear programs. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and others. The Libyans, the Iraqis, and lately the Syrians were not successful due to the early intervention militarily to cease their nuclear programs by force with favorable conditions. In the case of Iraq, in 1981, Israel conducted an air strike to the Iraqi nuclear reactor site, Osirak, (Operation Opera). At the time, Iraq was at war with Iran (the eight-year Iraq-Iran war). In the case of Syria, in 2007, a rudimentary nuclear program that was annihilated through an Israeli air strike during the Arab offspring revolution. Moreover, In the case of Libya, in 2011, NATO forces intervened and captured the Sabha yellowcake storage facilities through the IAEA confiscation during the Arab Spring-related Libyan crisis.

Covertly, Iran nuclear program has evolved secretively under the cover up of its Peaceful nuclear energy program that began with the US “Atom for Peace program”. What makes the Iranian case different is the diplomatic practices of long negotiation processes with the international community, much like North Korea.

 North Korea’s nuclear weapon program development also shares similar footprints with the Iranian one. Surprisingly, it constitutes a similar process of long negotiation campaigns with the international community; NPT ratification but with the exclusion of safeguards agreement, the presence of strong evidence of nuclear advancement until it succeeded in detonating its first nuclear explosion in 2006, and the Six-Party Talks much like the (P5+1).

The Iranian Nuclear Program manages to survive until today for it has not been dealt with the same way as in the case of Iraq, Libya, or Syria. In contrast, these countries nuclear program have been eradicated at very early stages. Similarly, North Korea has profited from long negotiations in order to avoid any possibility for aggressive disarmament. As a consequence, its nuclear weapon program has advanced ultimately.

The Iranian nuclear program maturity is incomparable to the Iraqi, Syrian, or Libyan cases. The Iranian regime has safeguarded its nuclear program through the massive investment in its national defense systems, indigenous missiles programs, ballistics, cruise, anti-air, drone technologies and many others. It has also utilized the geographical mountainous terrains to construct missile underground facilities covertly. Similarly, it has developed and progressed its nuclear program, reinforcing its defense networks with newly acquired Russian S-300 Air defense systems, and constructing layers of geographical defenses regionally though militia systems like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and other militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In addition, Iran geo-strategically has positioned itself on a vital maritime strait; Strait of Hurmuz, and disrupt to some extent the strait of Bab el Mandeb through its Yemeni militias, the Houthis. Reluctantly, the international community has only hoped that economic sanctions, negotiations, and incentives could persuade the Iranian regime to abandon such ambitions of building its own indigenous nuclear weapon program. Much like Pakistan, India, and North Korea, it only benefitted Iran to gain precious time and move its nuclear weapon program forward. If such a course of actions fails, it is imminent that Iran will join the nuclear club much like Pakistan, India, and North Korea already did.


In 1986, Iran’s regime granted its Revolutionary Guards the authority to create Iran’s first indigenous ballistic missile program by reverse engineering the classic soviet ballistic missile, Scud. For example, Iraq and North Korea implemented similar approaches. Iraq had employed it in the past while it was developing its nuclear program. Having been successful, the world would now have to deal with an Iraqi nuclear regime, much like North Korea today. Luckily, Iraq program was terminated before it could develop a nuclear weapon. Heedlessly, the international community has observed such similarity in the case of India and Pakistan, which both have a missile programs in conjunction with their nuclear weapon programs.


Limited options consist of two approaches: the diplomatic approach towards the Iranian regime with a two stage-policy – confinement and encirclement policies followed with a Truman doctrine-style policy approach. Instead of communism, Iran’s ideological containment concept applied policy through military regional isolation, and Iranian-backed militias’ terminations are an assured policy for an efficacious confinement. Other options are of high stakes: namely the regime change approach, and “Israeli style strike” approach with a military intervention, but for a great global cause.



Confinement is a policy long used and practiced mainly during the time of cold war. The US adopted such policy to confine the USSR and isolate it through clusters of alliances and military bases in order to suppress the spread of communist ideology as well as through economic incentives. The US has a long experience of implementing such a policy to a certain degree on Iran regime’s ideologically and militarily. Iran keeps spreading its ideology in many areas regionally and increase regional supporters; the Shiite militias; Hezbollah and its derivatives. Thus, Iran expansion regionally can be confronted, and the presence of its militias can be negatively affected. If not, these militias will eventually gain access to nuclear weapons much as they have now with drones and missiles today. Consequently, the world will face greater disturbance to its international law and order through the multiplier factor these militias adhere to.


However, in military parlance, encirclement is a policy that has seemed effective before with Iraq, Libya, and to some extent with North Korea. It is the next step to follow on if the confinement policy was incapable of deescalating the Iranian progress to develop a nuclear weapon. In order to have strong opposed message to Iran’s nuclear weapon program ambitions, the intensification of such policy must be in effect, and if only regional links to Iran’s militias have been terminated through Truman doctrine-style policy. Such policy’s prerequisite ensures the ultimate effectiveness to prevail the world’s peace and international security not to be in jeopardy.

Truman Doctrine-Style policy:

Considered a great pillar of American foreign policy, and the first spark to ignite the formation of the North Atlantic treaty Organization, NATO, the Truman Doctrine is a policy that consists of two goals. The primary goal is to realize the containment of the expansion of the USSR geopolitically at the time of the Cold War. The secondary goal is to stop the spread of communist uprisings through armed minorities, militias, in order to pressure their States to be pro-communism such as in Greece and Turkey. Similarly, Iran’s ideological regime and its constitutional concept of “Exporting the Revolution” shares many commonalities with what the Truman doctrine has fought for. Iran’s regime spreads such ideology through arming minorities. It is also utilizing an ideological theme of Shi’ism that favors, the Ayatollah, a theocratic form of government, a concept that was founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. It is that all Shiites must adhere, and obey the one Supreme Ayatollah. It is observed by many Shiite minorities nowadays e.g within Shia communities in Lebanon, Hezbollah rules by the name of Ayatollah. It is also similar in Iraq Shiite militias, Syria, and Yemen, and to some extent in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

The Truman doctrine can lay a fundamental policy in the case of Iran. If Iran becomes a nuclear power what will keep it fro not arming its militias with nuclear weapon too? What if in one day the Middle East faces a similar scenario like the Cuban missile crisis? Such questions are not far away from becoming a reality. The region is sensing hostility between Iran and its surrounding. Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are indignant at the existing JCPOA, not to mention the prolonged negotiations that only Iran seems the winner in it. Even further, Turkey to some extent and Egypt especially will not accept the imbalance of power and the disturbance of the geostrategic status quo. It is more of a chain reaction that can reach as far as the Mediterranean basin and threaten NATO boarders.


Hard as it may sound, but it is one perilous policy to explore. It is to evoke similar uprising in Iran, much like in Libya, and Syria, thus to destabilize the regime’s progression in its nuclear program and to sway Iranian decision makers in revising their policies and abandoning their ambitions of becoming a nuclear power. Any Iranian unrest measured internally can be advantageous to aforementioned policies.


Military intervention approach has a geo-strategic philosophy. Much like Iraq, but a lot less of Syria, and Libya. Iraq has been involved in an eight-year war, then economic sanctions, then an invasion/liberation. The difference in Iran case is that it has established regional allies backed by militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Such an arrangement provides layers of security and defense lines geopolitically and militarily. It has also mastered the game of sanctions and created a complex system to deceive them.


So far, Iran has ticked almost all the boxes. Based on security intelligence reports and state officials from many countries, statements have revealed how close Iran is to building its first nuclear weapon. They are warning the world of a geo-strategic shift in the balance of power if Iran becomes a nuclear power in the Middle East. Ambiguously, the imbalance of power in the Middle East will spark a nuclear arm race. The Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “(…) But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible”. Not only Saudi, but also Turkey and Egypt will surely join the race and all the long invested efforts in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be at stake. On the contrary, the State of Israel could be the most affected regionally if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

Israel, for instance, has warned the IAEA that it will use its “rights to self-defense” to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In comparison to the Ukrainian crisis, Russian State’s official, Vyacheslav Volodin, warns Europe would disappear if it gives Ukrainian forces access to their nuclear arsenals. Such response came after an EU Parliament member, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, statement that “the west has the right to give Ukraine nuclear warheads to protect its independence”. Similarly, the region of the Middle East has a great apprehension caused already by Iran’s foreign policy without nuclear weapons.


From an analytical point of view, why would Iran want to possess nuclear weapons? The answer could be in Iran’s own constitution. The Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al-Jubair said that Iran’s constitution provides for the export of the Revolution, and asked, “How can we negotiate with Tehran?”. Iran seeks to acquire nuclear weaponry to protect its ideology, and to ensures its masterplan for expansion. Ironically, the western hemisphere seems to shed an eye since 1979, and to all of the catastrophic events and turmoil the region had gone through until this very day because of such a constitution. It has underestimated the principle of “exporting the Revolution”, which Saddam Hussein has confronted for eight long years in which the export of the revolution was literally immobilized, but at a high cost. The Iranian regime reluctantly accepted the cease-fire then. Aside from any emotions, Iraq aggression against Iran at least thwarted to export the revolution for eight years. Afterwards, Iran resumed the construction of ideological grounds through organizing Shiites armed groups, ideological Militias, and strengthening them to expand ideologically, geopolitically, and militarily like Hezbollah, and others. With the absence of a strong Iraq, Iran had the audacity to infiltrate and resume the “export of Revolution” to its regional surrounding. More evidently, Members of the Iranian Parliament (MP) have explicitly boasted that Iran controls three Arab capitals “in the bag”; Bagdad, Damascus, and Beirut, with Sanaa soon to follow. Describing the fall of Sanaa in Yemen as a “natural extension” of the Iranian revolution, MP Ali Reza Zakani, hailed for the fall of Yemen in into the control of Houthi. That, he added, “the Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone, it will extend into Saudi territories” such territories that extend to the Shiite minorities in the Eastern Province where Saudi Arabia’s richest oil deposits lie. In addition, Iran yearns to bring back its lost glory, the Persian Empire. That is why Iran sees Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen as its outer border.

Many centuries ago, Thucydides argued that when an overly ambitious rising nation/State threatens the dominance of a more powerful nation/State, the two are likely to go to war. If Iran continues developing its nuclear weapon program, wars in the Middle East will become an unescapable fate. It is less costly to deal with non-nuclear Iran, so engaging now rather than waiting until it becomes nuclear power seems the right thing to do.


Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program neglected the dark side of his own words, “…if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all….” in which it backfired in the case of Iran. Iran the Shah is not Iran the Ayatollahs. This is what Eisenhower failed to recognize and wrongfully unleashed clusters of nuclear weapon chasers. Evidently, India and Pakistan through such program diverted the US Program to military uses. Funnily, a naïve Egyptian once said, whoever summons the Genie, must know how to begone it. The US Atoms for peace Program has flaws and it contributed more danger than peace. Leonardo Weiss, a former lead US Senate staffer on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, wrote, “It is legitimate to ask whether Atoms for Peace accelerated proliferation by helping some nations achieve more advanced arsenals than would have otherwise been the case. The jury has been in for some time on this question, and the answer is yes.

A nuclear program in the hands of the Ayatollah is a recipe for chaos. It is a regime that embraces a destructive ideology of “Exporting the Revolution”. Since 1979, it has creeped into four regional States; Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen seeding and nourishing armed minorities, militias, with its indigenous arsenal from missiles to drones.

Now or never, the US has a historical responsibility to correct its course of action, and hand in hand with the international community must act fast enough to disintegrate Iran’s nuclear program for the bomb is ticking.


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