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Opinion | The Death of Iran’s President Could Change the World

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A man casually looking down walks past a banner showing flying missiles.

Credit…AFP/Getty Images

By John Ghazvinian

The uncertainty ushered in by the death of Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash, just weeks after an unprecedented exchange of military attacks with Israel, has brought a chilling question to mind: Is 2024 the year that Iran finally decides it can no longer take chances with its security and races to build a nuclear bomb?

Up to now, for reasons experts often debate, Iran has never made the decision to build a nuclear weapon, despite having at least most of the resources and capabilities it needs to do so, as far as we know. But Mr. Raisi’s death has created an opportunity for the hard-liners in the country who are far less allergic to the idea of going nuclear than the regime has been for decades.

Even before Mr. Raisi’s death, there were indications that Iran’s position might be starting to shift. The recent exchange of hostilities with Israel, a country with an undeclared but widely acknowledged nuclear arsenal, has provoked a change of tone in Tehran. “We have no decision to build a nuclear bomb but should Iran’s existence be threatened, there will be no choice but to change our military doctrine,” Kamal Kharrazi, a leading adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said on May 9.

In April, a senior Iranian lawmaker and former military commander had warned that Iran could enrich uranium to the 90 percent purity threshold required for a bomb in “half a day, or let’s say, one week.” He quoted the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that the regime will “respond to threats at the same level,” implying that Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities would cause a rethinking of Iran’s nuclear posture.

Iran’s relationship with nuclear technology has always been ambiguous, even ambivalent. Both during the regime of the pro-western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s and 1970s and the anti-American Islamic Republic that has held power since 1979, Iran has kept outside powers guessing and worrying about its nuclear intentions. But it has never made the decision to fully cross the threshold of weaponization. There are several important reasons for this, ranging from religious reservations about the morality of nuclear weapons to Iran’s membership in the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But the biggest reason has been strategic.

Historically, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly concluded that they have more to gain from “playing by the rules” of the international nonproliferation order than they do from racing for the bomb. To do so, they would have to first withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty, which would immediately signal their intentions to the world and could invite American military intervention. At the same time, the revolutionary government has been reluctant to cave into Western demands and dismantle their program altogether, as that would demonstrate a different kind of weakness. Iran’s leaders are no doubt keenly aware of the example of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, who agreed in 2003 to abandon his country’s nuclear program, only to find himself overthrown eight years later following military intervention by a NATO-led coalition.

That strategic happy medium has worked well for the Islamic Republic — until now. Two decades of dysfunctional U.S. nuclear policy toward Iran have created a dangerous dynamic, in which Iran enriches more uranium than it otherwise might, either as a defensive posture or a negotiating tactic, and gradually inches its way toward being able to make a weapon that it might not even really want.

When the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute first emerged in the early 2000s, Iran had only 164 antiquated centrifuges and little real appetite for a weapons program. But the Bush administration’s unrealistic insistence that Iran agree to “zero enrichment” turned it into a matter of national pride. During the years that the Obama administration spent negotiating with Iran, the regime kept enriching uranium and adding to its stockpile, in part as a hedge against future concessions. And of course, President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and subsequent campaign of maximum pressure only added to Iran’s defiance.

Today, Iran has thousands of advanced centrifuges and a large stockpile of enriched uranium. This, in turn, has provoked some camps inside Iran to adopt a “might as well” argument for nuclear weaponization. If we’ve already come this far, the argument goes, then why not just go for a bomb?

Under Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran has remained adamant that it is better off demonstrating to the world its willingness to stay within the nonproliferation treaty. But in recent years, as Western sanctions have piled up and Iran’s economy has been strangled, hard-liners have occasionally suggested that the country has gained nothing from this posture and might be better off following the “North Korea model”— that is, pulling out of the nonproliferation treaty and racing for a bomb as North Korea did in 2003. Until now, these voices have been quickly marginalized, as it’s clear the supreme leader does not share the sentiment. An early 2000s fatwa, or religious ruling, by Ayatollah Khamenei declared nuclear weapons to be “forbidden under Islam” and decreed that “the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.”

Mr. Raisi’s death has quickly and dramatically shifted the landscape. A regime that had already begun to drift into militarism and domination by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) now risks moving more firmly into this camp. Some in the I.R.G.C. see the fatwa as outdated: One senior former regime official recently told me that the top brass of the corps is “itching” to engineer the fatwa’s reversal — and will most likely do so at the first opportunity.

Regardless of who wins the snap presidential election that now must be held by early July, the ultimate succession battle will be for the role of supreme leader, and the I.R.G.C. is likely to play a decisive role in the transition. The late president was seen as a front-runner to succeed the 85-year-old ayatollah. Now, other than Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, there are few strong contenders. Whoever prevails is likely to rely heavily on the I.R.G.C. for his legitimacy.

Historically, Iran has felt a nuclear hedging strategy is its best defense against external aggression and invasion. And Tehran may continue to calculate that racing for a bomb would only invite more hostility, including from the United States. Then again, an increasingly distracted and unpredictable Washington might not be in a position to react forcefully against a sudden and rapid Iranian rush for a bomb, especially if Iran chooses its moment wisely.

Between the war in Gaza, a possible change in American leadership, and a domestic power vacuum that the I.R.G.C. could step into, it is not difficult to imagine a brief window in which Iran could pull out the stops and surprise the world by testing a nuclear device.

Would I bet the house on this scenario? Perhaps not. But from the perspective of a historian, the possibility of an Iranian rush for a bomb has never felt more real than it does today.

John Ghazvinian is executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present.” He is working on a book on the history of Iran’s nuclear program.

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