October 4, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 888

Iran Becomes A Nuclear Threshold State

October 4, 2012 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 888


The Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, bans member states from enriching uranium to a level above the 3.5%-5% level required for producing energy and above the 19.7% level required for medical research; even this enrichment is permitted only with the approval and oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For years, the IAEA, representing the international community, had interpreted the right of NPT member states to use enriched uranium as the right to obtain the necessary enriched uranium for legitimate civilian purposes from the IAEA/the superpowers holding the monopoly on uranium enrichment. In line with this policy, in January 2005, then-IAEA director Mohamed Elbaradei called for a five-year moratorium on uranium enrichment activities, or, as he told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, "until we have completed our work on how we can have an international arrangement for the fuel cycle." He went on to say that such a moratorium would have value as it would place "some limitation on the right of every country to develop a full (nuclear) fuel cycle."[1] In another interview, with AFP, in February 2005, ElBaradei explained further: "We just cannot continue business as usual, that every country can build its own factories for separating plutonium or enriching uranium. Then we are really talking about 30, 40 countries sitting on the fence with a nuclear weapons capability that could be converted into a nuclear weapon in a matter of months."[2]

Furthermore, this policy was the basis of the agreement signed in 2005 between Iran and Russia, on the provision of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor. Under that agreement, Russia undertook to provide fuel for the light water reactor at Bushehr, while Iran undertook to return the spent fuel rods to Russia – all under full IAEA oversight.

Thus, all IAEA decisions over the years categorically demanded that Iran immediately cease its uranium enrichment project. The negotiations between Iran and the international community focused on the demand to stop uranium enrichment, with the IAEA and the superpowers undertaking to meet Iran's legitimate civilian needs for enriched uranium. When Iran refused to stop its uranium enrichment, the U.N. Security Council placed sanctions on it – that is, sanctions by the international community.[3]

The U.S. Administration Gradually Reverses Its Nuclear Policy

The U.S. administration gradually reversed its policy regarding uranium enrichment. Under the new policy, the right to use enriched uranium was reinterpreted as countries' right to enrich uranium on their own soil, as long as it was for civilian/peaceful purposes. This was reflected first in general statements such as President Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he stated: "Any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access to peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I'm hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal... I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust [vis-à-vis Iran] but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point."[4]

Later, this shift was expressed in clearer terms. For example, prior to attending a security summit in Thailand in July 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in remarks regarding the security needs of the U.S.'s Arab allies in the Middle East that could come under the hegemony of a nuclear Iran, "We want Iran to calculate, what I think is a fair assessment, that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon."[5]

In addition to the proposed defense umbrella, President Obama has repeatedly expressed his administration's firm commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. However, both the president and Secretary of State Clinton limit their objections to nuclear weapons alone, and no longer express objections to the right to enrich uranium as long as it is for civilian purposes and under oversight.[6]

An October 2009 report by the Iranian news agency Fars noted that the U.S. delegation to the Vienna nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 at that time was examining ways of officially declaring U.S. recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium on its own soil, and added that the shift in U.S. direction was encountering opposition from the European representatives to the talks.[7]

The Fars report may be a reflection of the new U.S. policy, as stated by then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen in a May 2009 ABC interview. In the interview, he was asked whether Iran could have "as Japan does, a full nuclear fuel cycle program that's fully inspected"; he answered that this was "certainly a possibility."[8]

This new U.S.’s policy was also reflected in David Ignatius April 6, 2012 op-ed on the, in which he wrote: "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation "will never pursue nuclear weapons." This verbal message was sent through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Khamenei last week. A few days before traveling to Iran, Erdogan had held a two-hour meeting with Obama in Seoul, in which they discussed what Erdogan would tell the ayatollah about the nuclear issue and Syria. Obama advised Erdogan that the Iranians should realize that time is running out for a peaceful settlement and that Tehran should take advantage of the current window for negotiations. Obama didn't specify whether Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium domestically as part of the civilian program the United States would endorse. That delicate issue evidently would be left for the negotiations that are supposed to start April 13, at a venue yet to be decided." [9]

On April 8, 2012, the Iranian daily Khorasan stated: "If the Washington Post was correct in its [April 6, 2012] report – which stated that Obama has told Khamenei, via Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, that he would recognize Iran's right to develop nuclear [abilities] for civilian purposes as long as Iran did not pursue an [atomic bomb] – then this represents a withdrawal from statements made by American officials in the Bush era and in the early stages of Obama's term in office."[10]

Indeed, this new policy entitling Iran to enrich uranium on its own soil as long as it is for civilian purposes was in fact an acceptance of Iran's years-long demand that it would be given a status equivalent to that of Germany and Japan (known as the Japanese/German model) which Iran has publicly demanded already in 2005.

In a visit to Berlin in February 2005, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi proposed the Japanese/German model as the basis for Iran-EU negotiations. In a meeting with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Kharrazi elaborated on Iran's perspective on how to resolve the dispute with the EU3: "Peaceful nuclear plants in Germany and Japan can serve as a good model for Iran's nuclear projects, and serve as the basis for any round of talks in that respect."[11]

Also, at a May 2009 joint press conference with Japanese foreign minister Hirofumi Nakasone, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki called for implementing the Japanese nuclear model in Iran as well, saying, "The view that exists about Japan's nuclear activities should be applied to other countries including Iran." Mottaki reiterated that Iran's nuclear activities were "legal and peaceful," and said, "Japan spent many years to build confidence about its nuclear work. Iran is moving on a similar path… During the confidence-building years, Japan was never obliged to suspend its (nuclear) activities."[12]

Can The Japanese/German Model Apply To Iran?

There are three differences between Iran and these two countries.

1) Both Germany and Japan have constitutional prohibitions against nuclear weapons;

1) Both countries are democracies, and have for decades acted in a way that allows trust in their stated intentions; and

2) Both enable full IAEA oversight of their nuclear facilities.

On the other hand, Iran:

1) Does not enable full IAEA oversight of its nuclear facilities; IAEA reports and U.N. Security Council resolutions stress that Iran does not allow full inspection of its nuclear facilities and does not cooperate with the IAEA. Furthermore, in September 2012, Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh made Iran's continued cooperation with the IAEA conditional upon the IAEA's acceptance of Iranian preconditions.[13]

2) Is not a democracy and its conduct does not allow trust in its stated intentions. Iran's top nuclear official openly declared recently that Iran had regularly deceived and lied to the IAEA.[14] Moreover, Iran has in the last few months even announced that it intends to enrich uranium to 90% for military use (nuclear submarines)[15]; and

3) Has never provided constitutional or quasi-constitutional assurances, comparable to those by Germany and Japan, that it does not intend to possess nuclear weapons. Indeed, in April 2012, an attempt was made by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to promote a substitute for an Iranian "constitutional" ban on nuclear weapons, in a form of a purported fatwa by Khamenei banning nuclear weapons. In an interview during his visit to Tehran in late March 2012, Erdogan told Iranian state television: "I have shared the Leader's [Khamenei's] statement with [U.S. President Barack] Obama and told him that in the face of this assertion, I do not have a different position, and they (the Iranians) are using nuclear energy peacefully."[16] However, the attempt failed; Khamenei misled the U.S. administration about the purported fatwa – not only has he never issued a fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons, as he claimed he had, but he was also unwilling to issue one at that time. While he made political statements to the effect that nuclear weapons are forbidden, these statements were not on a level that could be presented by the U.S. administration as constitutional – i.e. they were not a fatwa – relevant to an Islamic regime such as Iran.[17]

The risk of this new policy, as pointed out by former IAEA director ElBaradei, is that it allows NPT member states to become nuclear threshold states, developing capabilities for enriching uranium to advanced levels on their own soil under the guise of legitimate civilian purposes.

In a September 2012 CNN interview, former president Bill Clinton also pointed out the danger of this new policy, saying, "Iran has all these extensive contacts with terrorist groups, and even if the government didn't directly sanction it, it wouldn't be that much trouble to be – to get a Girl Scout cookie's worth of fissile material, which, if put in the same fertilizer bomb Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City, is enough to take out 20 to 25 percent of Washington, D.C. Just that little bit. So the prospect of spreading, in a way, dirty nuclear bombs, with smaller payloads that could wreak havoc and do untold damage, goes up exponentially every time some new country gets this capacity. And you don't have any control over and you don't know whether they do over what happens to the fissile material."[18]

Two Conflicting U.S. Nuclear Policies

It is safe to say that even if the U.S. had maintained its traditional previous policy, and opposed Iran's uranium enrichment on its own soil, Iran would still continue its efforts to attain high-level enrichment and nuclear weapons. However, this new U.S. policy provides legitimacy and impetus for Iran's efforts, and preempts any deal based on no enrichment above 5% on Iranian soil that Iran might possibly have accepted. For example, in 2010 Iran, together with Turkey and Brazil, proposed a deal to the 5+1 (and even presented it as an ultimatum) under which Iran would export its 1,200 kg of low-level enriched uranium to be enriched by Russia to the level of 20% for medical research.[19]

As mentioned, the U.S. administration stresses its absolute opposition to nuclear weapons and its intention of preventing Iran from possessing them, arguing that such a situation would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. However, what could lead to the development of a nuclear arms race is the U.S.'s new policy of permitting Iran to become a threshold state – and not only the actual possession of nuclear weapons that may lie in the distant future, and which the Obama administration is determined to not permit.

This new policy of practically allowing Iran to become a threshold state came at the very same time as President Obama launched his historic initiative for nuclear non-proliferation and his vision of global nuclear disarmament, which were presented in his April 2009 Prague strategy address.[20]

These two policies – the new nuclear policy allowing the development of threshold states, and the vision of non-proliferation and global nuclear disarmament – are completely at odds with one another. This is because it is the status of threshold state, in the case of states such as Iran, that paves the way for the development of nuclear weapons – even though there is an absolute intention not to allow them in the final stage of their development.

* Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project.


[1]Asahi Shimbun (Japan) and AFP, January 7, 2005.

[2] AFP, February 23, 2005; see also ElBaradei even appointed a panel of experts for preventing member countries' uranium enrichment, and the group published its conclusions in a report released as a U.N. document for the May 2005 NPT Review Conference. The report stated that the production of nuclear fuel should be taken out of the hands of individual nations and put into multilateral groups in order to keep countries from secretly developing atomic weapons (see Iran, for its part, announced its rejection of ElBaradei's 2005 initiative for a five-year moratorium on uranium-enrichment activities; Iran's then-foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said that developing states, including Iran, would not accept any new discrimination at that conference. IRNA, Iran, February 13, 2005; see also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 209, Iran Seeks EU Consent for Modeling Its Nuclear Program on the 'Japanese/German Model' – i.e. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Capabilities Three Months Short of a Bomb, February 23, 2005.

[3] See United Nations Security Council Resolutions against Iran:

[5] Guardian (U.K.), July 22, 2009; New York Times, July 23, 2009.

[6] See for example President Obama's September 25, 2012 statement on CBS's 60 Minutes: "A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained… The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Reuters, September 25, 2012. Also, on September 14, 2012, in a press statement on Iran, Secretary Clinton reiterated: "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and has pursued a dual-track policy to do so."

[7] Fars (Iran), October 19, 2009. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2605, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Advisor: 'Circumstances May Arise Under Which Iran Will Require Uranium Enriched to 63%',' October 19, 2009.

[10] Khorasan (Iran), April 8, 2012. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.4638 Iran Ahead of Upcoming Nuclear Talks: Majlis Member: We Can Manufacture Bomb, But We Won't; 'Kayhan': The U.S. Has Capitulated Iran Ahead of Upcoming Nuclear Talks: Majlis Member: We Can Manufacture Bomb, But We Won't; 'Kayhan': The U.S. Has Capitulated

[12] Iran Daily, Iran, May 4, 2009. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 513, Iran Foreign Minister: TheJapanese Nuclear Model Applies To Us Too, May 7, 2009.

[13] Soltanieh said: "We will continue to interact with the agency [IAEA] to prove the baseless nature of claims [against Iran nuclear energy program] but the framework for our work should be undoubtedly determined first …As long as the main considerations pertaining to Iran's national security and our basic demand on presenting alleged documents by the IAEA are not included in the text, the framework [of the new modality agreement] will not be agreed upon." Press TV (Iran) September 10, 2012.

[14] Fereydoun Abbasi, Iranian vice president and director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said: "Sometimes we give misinformation in order to protect our nuclear facilities and their achievements. There is no escape from misleading other espionage elements. Sometimes we show a weakness that we do not have. Sometimes we show a strong point that we do not have. Afterwars, it becomes clear to all in talks and negotiations with the IAEA." Al-Hayat, London, September 20, 2012.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.