Iran’s intelligence minister has warned that his country could push for a nuclear weapon if harsh international sanctions on Tehran remain in place, state television reported.
The remarks by Mahmoud Alavi on Tuesday marked a rare occasion in which a government official said Iran could reverse its course on the nuclear programme.
Tehran has long insisted that the programme is for peaceful purposes only, such as power generation and medical research. A 1990s fatwa, or religious edict, by the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei states that nuclear weapons are forbidden.
“Our nuclear programme is peaceful and the fatwa by the supreme leader has forbidden nuclear weapons, but if they push Iran in that direction, then it wouldn’t be Iran’s fault but those who pushed it,” Alavi was quoted as saying.
“If a cat is cornered, it may show a kind of behaviour that a free cat would not,” he said, adding that Iran has no plans to move towards a nuclear weapon under current circumstances.
In 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers three years earlier and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian economy as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.
In response, Iran began to gradually violate its commitments under the landmark accord. As part of those steps, Iran has begun enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels and said it would experiment with uranium metals, a key component of a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that all breaches of the pact are easily reversible.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran, urged the US on Sunday to lift all sanctions if it wants Tehran to live up to commitments under the deal.
The US and the other Western signatories to the deal appear to be at an impasse over which side should return to the accord first, making it unlikely US sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy can be quickly removed.
New US President Joe Biden has explicitly stated that Washington will not be making the first move.
Alavi, the intelligence minister, was also quoted as saying that a member of the Iranian armed forces “facilitated” the killing of a leading scientist in December who spearheaded Tehran’s nuclear programme, which Iran has blamed on Israel.
The minister did not expand on what he meant – and it was not clear if the soldier had carried out the explosion that killed the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Israel, which has been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade, has repeatedly declined to comment on the attack.
This was the first time that Iran acknowledged a member of its armed forces may have acted as an accomplice in the killing of Fakhrizadeh, who headed Iran’s so-called AMAD programme, which Israel and the West have alleged was a military operation looking at the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency – the UN’s nuclear watchdog – says that “structured” programme ended in 2003. US intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report.
In December, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing, saying his country will decide the time or venue of any retaliatory action.
Israel has long accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, and the 2015 nuclear accord imposed strict limits on Iranian nuclear activities to prevent it from reaching weapons capabilities. In exchange, Iran was given sanctions relief.