A new round of comments from inside Iran's leadership ranks reaffirms its intention to produce a nuclear bomb, a decades-long cat and mouse game between the regime and an ever cautious West that hasn't seemed to change even as the Russia-Ukraine war brings in a new world order.
Ali Mottahari, a former deputy-speaker of the Iranian Parliament, recently revealed that "right from the start of our nuclear activity, our aim was to build a bomb and strengthen our deterrent force. But we couldn't keep this a secret." It appeared he was admitting to what regional and Western states have long suspected and Iran's regime denies — that it wants to make nuclear bombs.
Mottahari's father, Morteza Mottahari, was a prominent theologian and confidante of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This has allowed his son to speak with relative freedom under the Islamic Republic. In comments to a local press outlet broadcast on April 22, Mottahari blamed the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a Marxist opposition group, for revealing Iran's supposed nuclear plans.
The Islamic Republic officially insists its nuclear program is to generate power and that the sanctions it faces for this and other activities are unfair and illegal. Yet Mottahari continued: "A country that wants to make peaceful use of nuclear power never starts with enrichment. First it builds a reactor, then goes into enrichment... going straight into enrichment arouses suspicions we want to build a bomb."
An open secret
A day later, Mottahari felt obliged to explain, or explain away, his comments. As always, he blamed the interviewer who, he said, had misconstrued his statements. Of course, his remarks are not entirely shocking or unusual, and if world powers did not suspect Iran's objectives, there would never have been so many inspections or talks on its program over decades, including those currently on hold in Vienna. The importance is rather to do with the speaker. While Mottahari — who presents himself as a conservative but "independent" politician — was barred from running for the presidency in 2021, as an undoubted regime "insider," nobody imagines he would blurt out secrets without prior coordination with the Supreme Leader's office.
We'll pursue the nuclear program until we have our bomb.
The revelations precisely coincide with the interruption of talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear pact. The Biden administration's under-the-table conversations with the Iranians have also yielded little, though U.S. Republican lawmakers have said they must end anyway. And yet, 43 senior EU and U.S. officials and politicians have publicly called for negotiations to continue, to swiftly reach a new deal with the Islamic Republic.
Mottahari's comments convey the message to Western parties that like it or not, whether in secret or openly, we'll pursue the nuclear program until we have our bomb.
Khamenei during a recent meeting with members of the Iranian leadership.
Khamenei's dream of a new world order
His comments match the view of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He recently told a gathering of students and clerics that the Ukraine war will change the world and a new order was taking shape. Evidently, the world has changed since February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. But Khamenei's vision is of a multipolar world rising from the ruins of American and Western supremacy, with the Islamic Republic as one of its new power poles.
And assuming it will not have one superpower or bipolarity as in the Cold War, then his regime has little reason to keep talking to the West and accept the restrictions of the international community. In the new order taking shape in Khamenei's imagination — and perhaps only there — the Islamic Republic will be the equal of the West and the United States. Next time they talk at the table, it will speak from a much stronger position. Politicians like Mottahari and Khamenei are in no doubt that Iran can only attain this enhanced status if armed with nuclear bombs.
The U.S. administration's changing postures on Iran's program suggest many U.S. politicians do not precisely understand the Islamic Republic's strategy and tactics. The Secretary of State Antony Blinken says a deal is almost at hand one day, and another day warns that it is a matter of weeks before Iran is nuclear weapon-ready. While one official touts diplomacy as the best or only way to stop an Iranian bid to make a bomb, another official visits Israel to discuss a plan B should diplomacy fail. The Americans are further confused by Tehran's deceptive, or contradictory, signals. Sadly, it is the people of Iran paying the price of this confusion.
Good cop, bad cop with Taliban
Meanwhile, recent tensions with the Afghan Taliban and the transfer of troops to Iran's eastern frontier may have several reasons. While both regimes rule in the name of Islam, they have clashing views on many issues, and not just because of ideological differences between the Shia and Sunni schools. Like other regional countries, Afghanistan has become a setting for proxy wars in which neighbors like Iran hope to maintain or expand their influence. If Iran's regime must compete with Turkey in Iraq, in Afghanistan the rivalry is with Pakistan.
The Taliban can once again help revolutionary Iran pull the wool over the West's eyes.
While the world has a dim view of Iran's regime, it has an even dimmer view of the Taliban. The Islamic Republic is well-versed in this little game of presenting a choice between two unpalatable options. When civil war erupted in Syria and as sectors of the army were preparing to fight the Assad regime, somebody in Tehran advised the Syrian president to open his prisons to let out their store of hoodlums. Weeks later, the world was aghast at the sight of groups like ISIS, and suddenly, with such monsters on the loose, fighting Bashar al-Asad stopped being the priority. Tehran and Damascus were still bad — just no longer the worst.
It was a useful piece of deceit, and today perhaps the Taliban can once again help revolutionary Iran pull the wool over the West's eyes.