Jeffrey LewisIran as a Nuclear State

I see that some media outlets are latching on to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran is a “nuclear state” as though this is a profound bit of reading the tea leaves.

A quick perusal of lexis-nexis suggests this is something like the eighth time in four years that Ahmadinejad (or an aide) has declared Iran to be a nuclear state, nuclear power or member of the nuclear club. I am sure you can find more, if you don’t have anything better better to do.

Here is my tentative list:

Iran is a nuclear power. (Ahmadinejad aide, September 2009)

As a result of the resistance of Iranian people, the country has reached a major goal which is to become a nuclear state. (April 2008)

Iran is among the world’s nine nuclear states. (July 2007)

Iran is already a nuclear state and possesses the necessary technology for producing its own nuclear fuel. (June 2007)

The Iranian people have reached the stage of nuclear industrial production and Iran has thus joined the club of great nuclear states. (April 2007)

Becoming a nuclear state is a high aspiration and a holy goal for Iran. (January 2007)

The Islamic Republic of Iran is now a nuclear power. (December 2006)


  1. David

    It is interesting to see all these statements posted together. Certainly declared intent to be “nuclear state” is not new in Iran. The interesting part is the ambiguity about “nuclear state.” Personal opinions aside “nuclear state” could have either civil or military implications.

    The July 2007 thus stands out for its specificity. Referencing the nine (Lord of the Rings?) is rather unambiguous.

    In the absence of full disclosure, it seems like one must take Iran’s declarations at face value.

    Of course my favorite quote is from Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When asked if his country would have nuclear weapons “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.”

  2. Bahram Chubin (History)

    David: There isn’t any ambiguity in Iran’s statements on this issue. Ahmadinejad and other officials never tire of repeating that Iran’s nuclear program is purely civilian. If one counted all the public statements to that effect made by various officials in various settings (domestic & international) since 2003, it would have to number over a hundred.

  3. LiL TiNo (History)

    Yeah it’s kinda like the story about the Russian S-300.

    Which has been going around for about-what- like ten years or so, right?

  4. FSB

    Indeed the Shah’s statement was accurate then given all the nuclear help US was providing to Iran at the time.

    Reminds me of the help Chemical Rumsfeld and Chemical Cheney gave to Chemical Ali when we were pals with Saddam.

    Anyway, nuclear ambiguity seems like a popular stance in the middle east.

  5. Norman (History)

    Another prescient quote from the June 2003 NY Times article cited by David is the following:
    “In an interview in Le Monde in March, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization chief said that before Iran agrees to demands that it sign an additional inspections protocol, Western countries must drop sanctions on imports of material for developing nuclear energy.
    With no evident intention of trying to check or control Iran’s nuclear program through negotiation, however, the United States appears to have been left with an approach based only on threats.”
    In other words, US foreign policy towards Iran’s nuclear policy has basically stayed the same since 2003 despite 6 years of failure. (The “new” take-it-or-leave-it stance on “negotiation” breaks little new ground).

  6. nick (History)

    This is another case of using “beware of dogs” sign to deter military strikes, when one is not sure if there is a dog in the house or not. We have seen this used by others in the past as well. For insatnce, Japanese threat to go nuclear right after North Korea tested the first bomb, or Saddam using it in blocking an Iranian threat. We also tried it with our own missile defense systems during the cold war with the Soviets.

  7. mark hibbs

    About a decade ago, a member of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Atsuyuki Suzuki, caused a little dust-up when he a few times referred to Japan as a “virtual nuclear (weapons) state.” Dr Suzuki, who is an expert on Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle and plutonium fuels program, among other topics, intended, I recall, to mean that Japan had the know-how and nuclear material to fairly quickly produce nuclear weapons if it wanted to do that. Some senior people in the Japanese government, and especially at the Japan MFA, were not amused. Dr Suzuki no longer refers to Japan using these words.

  8. Andrew

    In reply to Mark and Japan as a virtual nuclear state, does it really matter if they call themselves one or not? All they have to do is change their intention, right?

  9. David


    You’re right, Iran has been very explicit in many public statements about its “peaceful” intent. But that July 2007 statement also very explicitly says that Iran equivocates itself to the other 9 nuclear WEAPONS states.

    I really don’t think it makes a difference if it is 1000 “peaceful” statements to 1 military/weapons statement. We’re talking about nuclear weapons, there needs to be absolute clarity on the issue.

    The way to have absolute clarity of course is through actions on the ground including thorough inspections and a proactive commitment to safeguards. The reality however is quite the opposite. Combining a confrontational and opaque stance regarding safeguards with mixed rhetoric leads to justified skepticism.

    I completely agree that the West (U.S.) needs to do a lot more to build trust on its side. But given the chronology of events and existing international agreements, skepticism of Iran’s program is justified and it would really help the situation if Iran would attempt to rectify this.

    I’m really glad Japan was brought up in this discussion. As pointed out Japan has a virtual weapons capability (correct me if I am wrong but is Japan the only non-weapons state to have a complete fuel cycle?). But I think it is safe to say that Japan has embraced safeguards more than any other country in the world.

    Iran wants a complete nuclear fuel cycle similar to Japan. Why should Iran expect international acceptance of a complete Iranian nuclear fuel cycle without an embrace of international safeguards also similar to Japan? Did I miss the Iranian proposal to open the Tehran IAEA field office?

  10. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I think the “nine” states is being misinterpreted.

    There are nine states with nuclear weapons, so Iran would be number 10.

    Global Security.orghas the full text:

    Iran not to give up nuclear rights: Ahmadinejad

    IRNA – Islamic Republic News Agency

    Tehran, July 26, IRNA
    President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said here Wednesday the Iranian nation would never yield to international pressure to stop its peaceful nuclear activities and give up its rights.

    President Ahmadinejad made the remark in an interview with Channel 2 of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

    Iran’s nuclear case is not limited to three options of timeout, further sanctions and military confrontation as considered by nuclear negotiators, he said.

    “Nuclear negotiators should seek a fourth solution, namely giving us our (nuclear) right,” he added.

    He stated, “The three options are almost out of question … Their call for suspension of our nuclear activities is not legal.” Ahmadinejad said, “The West has carried out whatever measure it could and will do the same in the future but it has concluded that it cannot put Iran under pressure by imposing sanctions in an effective way as it wishes.”
    “The West thought sanctions would give a big shock to the Iranian nation.

    “They (Western countries) issued two resolutions against the Iranian nation but as they admitted, Iranians continue their lives in peace and have no fear of sanctions.”

    “World public opinion even in European states are in Iran’s favor.

    We have never made bullying against any country and currently act legally,” the president added.

    He said more than 75 percent of people in the world have accepted Iran’s peaceful nuclear right, stressing, “This is an outcome of Iranians’ resistance and guidelines of the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei).”

    “I think we are moving in a good direction. Acceptance of Iran’s legal rights is an inevitable end to trend of Iran’s nuclear case,” he added.

    Ahmadinejad said, “All our measures considering peaceful nuclear activities have been legal and based on ratifications of Majlis.

    “Even if the number of resolutions against Iran reached 300, it cannot prevent materialization of the country’s rights.” He stressed, “Iran is among the world’s nine nuclear states.

    “Western countries are unhappy not because of Iran’s fuel production but over the issue that nuclear fuel production will make Iran have a share in management of the world.”

    He denied that the UN resolutions had hurt Iran, saying, “Currently, we hold negotiations under circumstances that Iran has entered industrial-scale of (uranium enrichment).”

    The president further stated the Iranian nation faces less problems on the path of nuclear activities in comparison with other nations, adding, “This reality is because of potentials and capabilities of the Iranians.”

  11. mark hibbs

    Andrew (better late than never, I guess, on my part) You’re right of course, but in Japan the political culture of this is a big deal, as Jeffrey and Mort Halperin (who did a seminal paper on this topic and almost caused a Richter scale 8 earthquake in Japan over this) will tell you in detail. The bottom line of it is that Japan keeps sceaming “NO” to nuclear weapons while behind the scenes it’s not that simple. They’ve gotten a lot of political capital out of being the world’s first and only victims of a nuclear weapons attack. For how long still? And the behind the scenes stuff can’t be summarily dismissed (as official Japan would prefer) for the simple reason that EVERYTHING that matters in Japan happens behind the scenes. That’s just how the place functions.