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Myths & Facts
The Iranian Threat

by Mitchell Bard

Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power.
The JCPOA prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
Israel has nothing to fear from a nuclear Iran.
Iran does not believe that it can win a nuclear war.
Iran’s nuclear program threatens only Israel.
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA allowed Iran to get closer to a bomb.
The only alternative to a nuclear deal is war.
Military force cannot prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
“Snapback” sanctions ensured Iran would adhere to the nuclear agreement.
The Iran deal eliminates the danger of nuclear proliferation.
The nuclear agreement put an end to Iran’s ballistic missile research.
Attacking Iran will create more instability and endanger U.S. interests.

MYTH

Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power.

FACT

Evidence of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was revealed in 2002 with the discovery of two previously unknown nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz. This was followed by the admission by Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, that he provided atomic weapons expertise and equipment to Iran.1

Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2004 that U.S. intelligence indicated Iran was trying to fit missiles to carry nuclear weapons. “There is no doubt in my mind—and it’s fairly straightforward from what we’ve been saying for years—that they have been interested in a nuclear weapon that has utility, meaning that it is something they would be able to deliver, not just something that sits there,” Powell said.2

The international consensus opposing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was reflected by multiple UN Security Council measures starting with Resolution 1696 in July 2006. This resolution gave Iran a deadline to suspend its uranium enrichment. In December, the UN adopted a similar measure (Resolution 1737), which added prohibitions on Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear material and equipment. On February 22, 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran had not complied with the resolutions, prompting Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to declare that Iran would never suspend uranium enrichment.3

In February 2010, President Barack Obama announced sanctions on Iran. The next day Iran announced it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level of purity, 20%, moving a step closer to producing weapons-grade uranium.4 By May, the IAEA reported that Iran had created a stockpile of nuclear fuel that, with further enrichment, would be sufficient to build two nuclear weapons.5

American intelligence assessments estimated that before signing the nuclear deal with Iran – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in 2015, Iran could build a nuclear weapon within two to three months.6

If the Iranians had no interest in a bomb, why did they acquire the means to make one within such a short period?

After President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran accelerated its development of a nuclear capability. The IAEA reported in May 2022 that Iran had enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.7 Two months later, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead.”8

MYTH

The JCPOA prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

FACT

On July 14, 2015, the P5+1 (USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia) announced they had agreed with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran wanted to be free of sanctions, and the other signatories hoped to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Verifying Iran’s compliance depended on monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Supporters of the deal repeatedly said the IAEA certified Iran’s compliance, but this was never true. In 2019, David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security wrote: “The IAEA has reported that it still has not been able to determine that Iran has no undeclared nuclear facilities and materials and thus cannot conclude that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful.” They concluded, “The basic proposition of whether Iran seeks nuclear weapons has not been answered in the three-plus years since the deal commenced.”9

We know much more today.

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to limit enrichment to 3.7% and cap its low-enriched uranium stock at 660 pounds (300 kilograms) for 15 years. In 2020, the IAEA reported that the stockpile was nearly 12 times the amount permitted and enriched to 4.5% purity.10

Israel had called for destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities and the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The Washington Post noted that “not one of the country’s 19,000 centrifuges” would be dismantled under the agreement.11 In 2021, Iran installed more centrifuges at Fordow and announced it would increase enrichment levels to 60%, closer to the 90% needed to produce a nuclear weapon.12 It also installed advanced centrifuges and continued to enrich uranium at Natanz.13

Iran agreed to turn its underground enrichment plant at Fordow into a science research center and reduce the number of centrifuges at its Natanz plant. A third reactor constructed at Arak was to be redesigned so it could not produce weapons-grade plutonium.

In 2019, Iran said it had faked pictures of pouring concrete into the reactor’s pit at Arak and announced it was resuming activities at the facility.14 According to Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director for safeguards, “The reactor has yet to be irreversibly modified not to produce plutonium in quantities of non-proliferation concern.”15

The IAEA was supposed to have access to information regarding Iran’s past nuclear weapons research and verify that it was not developing a nuclear bomb but was obstructed from doing so. The IAEA, for example, was prevented from investigating the Parchin site, where it is suspected that Iran engaged in research and testing related to building a nuclear weapon. The Iranians tried to conceal the work by removing soil and infrastructure; however, uranium particles discovered at Parchin in 2015, along with satellite imagery and documents from defectors, indicated the base was part of the nuclear program.16

Heinonen recalled that it took six months between the time the Natanz plant was discovered and the IAEA was allowed inside. The delay was designed to conceal another research and development site. The same deceptive policy, he said, was used to develop the secret underground facility at Fordo.17

Because President Joe Biden did not reverse Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA, Iran stopped providing data from surveillance cameras in February 2021. Then, after the IAEA board rebuked Iran in June 2022 for failing to cooperate with its investigation into sites where undeclared nuclear material was found, Iran responded by removing 27 cameras monitoring its nuclear activities.18

The Agency also has not been allowed to conduct the “anywhere, anytime” inspections President Obama promised to sell the deal to Congress. Though the JCPOA makes no distinction between civilian and military installations, Iran has denied access to military sites, the most likely places for weapons research and development.19

The inadequacy of the IAEA verification regime was proven when Israel discovered and stole documents from a secret compound in Tehran detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons activities.20 Israel later identified a secret warehouse where equipment and material related to Iran’s past or possibly ongoing nuclear weapons efforts were stored. It also held 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of radioactive material that Iran dispersed around Tehran. Iran blocked inspectors from investigating two undeclared sites, presumably to allow time to sanitize them; nevertheless, when they were allowed access, they found traces of radioactive material likely related to nuclear weapons research.21

The JCPOA did not prevent Iran from building a bomb; it only increased the “breakout” point—the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough bomb-grade material for a singular nuclear weapon—to one year. Obama claimed that safeguards would allow the detection of any Iranian effort to “breakout.”

Given the failure to detect and stop nuclear programs in North Korea, Pakistan, and India, there was cause for skepticism. Moreover, even a year may not be enough “for the intelligence community to identify the development, attempt to persuade Iran to refrain from making it, and take action to stop it,” according to Israeli security analyst Ephraim Kam.22

Obama subsequently admitted that by “year 13, 14, 15 [of the proposed deal], they [could] have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly and, at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero (emphasis added).”23 Rather than reaching that point as early as 2028, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki admitted in April 2022, “Their breakout period is down from about a year, which is what we knew it was during the deal, to just a few weeks or less.”24 A few months later, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead,” and the Agency had limited visibility on what was happening.25

This raises the question: How can Iran advance toward building a weapon when Obama promised “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off” by the JCPOA?26

Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, contradicted the president when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016 that “Iran does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon.” He added, “Iran probably views the JCPOA as a means to remove sanctions while preserving nuclear capabilities.”27

The terms of the JCPOA also undermined its objective. The United States had to agree to remove sanctions and unfreeze Iranian assets to win Iran’s approval. That gave Iran billions of dollars (estimates were as high as $150 billion) for continued covert nuclear weapons development, terrorism, and other malign activities.28

One reason to doubt Iran will abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons is the fear that it could lead to the regime’s downfall. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei believes Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear program in 2003 eventually hastened the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.29 Iran also believes it has as much right to a bomb as the other countries in the nuclear club.

MYTH

Israel has nothing to fear from a nuclear Iran.

FACT

Jews have learned from painful history that they should take it seriously when someone threatens to kill them. Therefore, no one should be surprised at the alarm expressed by Israel when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “This origin of corruption [Israel] will soon be wiped off the Earth’s face!”30 and Ayatollah Khamenei declared that Israel is a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut.”31 Khamenei also said Israel would not exist in 25 years; it would disappear much earlier, Tel Aviv and Haifa would be turned to ashes, and Jerusalem would be liberated.32

The front page of the December 14, 2021, edition of the Tehran Times featured a map of Israel covered with markings for potential rocket attacks with the threatening headline, “Just One Wrong Move!” Beneath the map, the paper wrote, “An intensification of the Israeli military threats against Iran seems to suggest that the Zionist regime has forgotten that Iran is more than capable of hitting them from anywhere.”33


Click on the photo for an enlarged map

Would Iran launch a nuclear attack against Israel and take the risk of an Israeli counterstrike that might destroy the country?

Middle East expert Bernard Lewis said it was possible because Islamists in Iran want infidels to go to hell and believers to ascend to heaven. As evidence, Lewis quotes a passage from Ayatollah Khomeini, cited in an eleventh-grade Iranian schoolbook:

I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against the whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all of them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom, which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.34

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believed the most critical task of the Iranian Revolution was to prepare the way for the return of the Twelfth Imam, who disappeared in 874, bringing an end to Muhammad’s lineage. Shiites believe this imam, the Mahdi or “divinely guided one,” will return in an apocalyptic battle in which the forces of righteousness will defeat the forces of evil and bring about a new era in which Shi’a Islam ultimately becomes the dominant religion throughout the world. The Shiites have been waiting patiently for the Twelfth Imam for more than a thousand years, and some fear Iranian leaders might believe they can hasten the return through a nuclear war.

It is this apocalyptic worldview, Lewis notes, which distinguishes Iran from other governments with nuclear weapons.

Iran will not have to use a weapon to influence events in the region. The Iranians can deter Israel or any other nation from attacking Iran or its allies by possessing nuclear capability. For example, when Hezbollah attacked Israel in 2006, a nuclear Iran could have threatened retaliation against Tel Aviv if Israeli forces bombed Beirut. The mere threat of using nuclear weapons would be sufficient to drive Israelis into shelters and could cripple the economy.

Israel’s prime minister must contemplate the following questions: Will immigrants want to come to a country that lives in the shadow of annihilation? Will companies want to do business under those conditions? Will Israelis be willing to live under a nuclear cloud?

If you were prime minister, would you take Iranian threats seriously? Could you risk allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons? How long would you wait for sanctions or other international measures to work before acting unilaterally to defend your country? Would you trust a nuclear deal to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, given the failure of the JCPOA to prevent Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold?

I wish Israel did not need defensive weapons of mass destruction or the region’s most powerful defense forces. I wish the world had not driven the Jewish State into allocating its limited resources away from its universities and toward its military, but survival must come first, and Israel’s military strength is the key to its survival. Anyone who believes that survival can be assured by moral superiority alone must remember the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka gas chambers.

—Alan Dershowitz35

MYTH

Iran does not believe that it can win a nuclear war.

FACT

One reason deterrence worked during the Cold War is that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union believed it could win a nuclear war without suffering horrific losses. Some argue that Iran knows Israel would use its nuclear weapons to retaliate if Iranian nuclear missiles ever hit it and, therefore, would never risk a first strike.

The problem with this analysis is that Iran’s leaders believe they can win a nuclear war.

Khamenei has said, “Sometimes the leaders of the Zionist regime threaten us….They should know that if they attack us, we will turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into wastelands.”36

Hashemi Rafsanjani, the President of Iran from 1989 until 1997, said, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.”37 In a 2001 speech, Rafsanjani declared: “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”38

In 2022, when it appeared a new nuclear agreement would be reached, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned that if Israel attacks any of its nuclear facilities, it “will see if anything from the Zionist regime will remain or not.”39

Iran is 75 times the size of Israel, with a population of 84 million compared to Israel’s 9.7 million. This discrepancy explains why Rafsanjani and others believe Iran could survive an exchange of nuclear strikes while Israel would be annihilated.

Iran is also not deterred by the fact that innocent Muslims would be killed in a strike on Israel. The Tehran Times map of missile targets included Jerusalem and Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza (where no Israelis live).40

Rafsanjani admitted he wasn’t concerned about the fallout from an attack on Israel. “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession,” he said, “the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” Rafsanjani wasn’t concerned that the destruction of the Jewish State would also result in the mass murder of Palestinians.41

A nuclear Iran that is not afraid of the consequences of nuclear war cannot be deterred or contained.

MYTH

Iran’s nuclear program threatens only Israel.

FACT

Israel is not alone in its concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The nations most worried about Iran are its immediate neighbors who have no doubts about the hegemonic ambitions of the radical Islamists in Tehran.

Iran’s Arab neighbors have accused it of threatening the sovereignty and independence of Bahrain and territories of the United Arab Emirates, “issuing provocative statements against Arab states,” and interfering in the affairs of the Palestinians, Iraq, and Morocco.42

Iranian officials renewed claims that it was part of the Persian Empire in statements challenging Bahrain’s sovereignty. The effect of Iran’s saber rattling, journalist Giles Whittell wrote, “is especially chilling in Bahrain as the only Sunni-led country with a Shia majority that is not at war or on the brink of war.”43 Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmad Bin Hali angrily denounced Iran’s claims to Bahrain, while former Bahraini army chief of staff Sheik Maj.-Gen. Khalifa ibn Ahmad al-Khalifa said Iran stirs trouble in many Gulf nations. “[Iran] is like an octopus,” he observed. “It is rummaging around in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Gaza, and Bahrain.”44

The crown prince of Bahrain was the first Gulf leader to accuse Iran of lying about its weapons program. “While they don’t have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it,” Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said.45

Iran also reasserted its authority over three islands of the United Arab Emirates that it forcibly seized in the early 1970s and continues to occupy. While joint sovereignty was maintained between Iran and the UAE over the Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands until 1994, Iran increased its military capabilities on Abu Musa, stationed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers there, and expelled foreign workers in an attempt to assert complete control of the island. The UN General Assembly, the Arab League, and the Arab Parliamentary Union affirmed their support for the UAE’s claim and determined that Iran illegally occupies the islands.46

Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.

—President Joseph Biden47

The Iranian threat is felt in Arab states beyond the Gulf as well. Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the inflammatory statements concerning Bahrain and hostile activity by Iranians inside Morocco. Morocco’s foreign ministry accused the Iranian diplomatic mission in Rabat of interfering in the kingdom’s internal affairs and attempting to spread Shi’a Islam in the nation, where 99% of the population are Sunni Muslims.48

Turkey has also expressed alarm at Iran’s actions. Turkish president Abdullah Gül declared, “Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself.”49

European leaders see Iran as a threat to their interests. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said, “Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb. I say to the French, it’s unacceptable.”50 German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “I’m emphatically in favor of solving the problem through negotiations, but we also need to be ready to impose further sanctions if Iran does not give ground.”51 “Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon,” British prime minister David Cameron declared. “It’s in the interests of everyone here and everyone in the world that we don’t get a nuclear arms race.”52

“A nuclear-armed Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella.” Iran’s proxies—Hezbollah and Hamas— would then be “emboldened to attack the United States, Israel, and other countries because they will be backed by a power that has atomic bombs.” Furthermore, Netanyahu warned, “A nuclear-armed Iran could choke off the world’s oil supply and could make real its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz.”

“The worst nightmare of all,” Netanyahu added, is that “Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.”53

The international concern that prompted a series of UN resolutions and condemnation of Iranian behavior has nothing to do with Israel. Most of the world understands that a nuclear Iran poses a direct threat to countries inside and outside the Middle East, raises the specter of nuclear terrorism, increases the prospects for regional instability, and encourages proliferation.

Given the threat posed by Iran, the Arab states, not Israel, lobbied the U.S. government to launch a military attack against Iran. For example, the king of Saudi Arabia said the United States should destroy its nuclear programs and “cut off the head of the snake.”54

MYTH

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA allowed Iran to get closer to a bomb.

FACT

The Trump administration spent months negotiating an agreement with European allies on strengthening the JCPOA to satisfy the president’s concerns. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens noted, “the same people who previously claimed the deal was the best we could possibly hope for suddenly became inventive in proposing means to fix it.”55

The Europeans were unwilling to make significant changes in the agreement and were particularly opposed to reimposing sanctions that would threaten their business opportunities in Iran. Consequently, on May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would be exiting the nuclear deal, making good on a campaign pledge to undo an agreement he repeatedly criticized as the worst deal ever.

Iran did not withdraw from the agreement. It remained committed, along with the remaining signatories, to comply with its terms. Iran had been cheating on the deal from the day it was signed but openly began to flout it after the U.S. decision. Trump then reimposed the sanctions his predecessor had lifted. Rather than go along with these snapback sanctions, which Obama had said would be applied for noncompliance, China and Russia opposed any penalties. At the same time, the Europeans confined themselves to desultory criticism and calls for renewed negotiations. The failure to react to the violations emboldened Iran to continue accelerating its advancement toward a nuclear weapons capability.

It was left to President Joe Biden to negotiate a return to compliance by the United States and Iran. After more than a year of talks, and offering a variety of concessions, including reversing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and easing others, Iran continued to hold out for more compromises while getting closer to building a bomb.

MYTH

The only alternative to a nuclear deal is war.

FACT

The Obama administration cynically used this straw man to suggest that anyone who opposed their policy wanted a war with Iran because that was the only other option. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other opponents of the deal were subsequently painted as warmongers; however, Netanyahu repeatedly said the alternative to a bad deal was not war but a better deal. That would only be possible if Iran’s leaders feared the consequences of continuing their pursuit of a bomb. They did not believe Obama was willing to use military force, weakening his bargaining position and guaranteeing that an agreement would not meet all his demands to prevent Iran from violating it.

When President Joe Biden met Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August 2021, he assured him that the United States would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. “We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us,” he said. “But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.”56

It is not war but a credible threat of military action that is required to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. As Prime Minister Yair Lapid told Biden when he visited Israel, “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.”57

MYTH*

Military force cannot prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

FACT

Former Israeli defense and prime minister Ehud Barak noted that six countries had pursued nuclear weapons programs in the last generation. “Two were persuaded to surrender their ambition voluntarily: Libya and South Africa. Two were stopped by surgical airstrikes: Iraq and Syria. The final two—Pakistan and North Korea—got the bomb, and got it following a path not so different than the one the ayatollahs are treading today.”58

No one can be sure what impact a military operation would have on Iran’s nuclear program. Would it knock out some, all, or none of the research facilities? If it only knocked out some of them, would that slow down Iran’s progress toward building a bomb? If so, for how long?

Depending on the effectiveness of the use of force, the Iranian program might only be postponed; however, the negotiated agreement also slowed but did not stop Iran’s nuclear activities. An attack might deter Iran for a shorter period than the JCPOA, but, as Barak noted, “A surgical strike on key nuclear facilities in Iran can throw them five years backward, and a repetition would become a major Iranian worry. On the spectrum of military actions, this would be closer to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden than to the invasion of Iraq.”59

Obama insisted the cost of any attack would exceed the benefit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the president had it backward. “There’s been plenty of talk,” he said, “about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time we started talking about the costs of not stopping Iran.”60

Some analysts have questioned Israel’s ability to conduct a military operation; however, Israel’s then chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the country’s military could attack Iran without foreign support. If necessary, he said Israel could fight alone without the help of the United States or other countries. “We have our plans and forecasts ... If the time comes, we’ll decide” on whether to take military action, he said. Similarly, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East - and certainly Iran.”61

Israel’s likely objectives would be to destroy Iran’s main enrichment sites, research and testing facilities for nuclear warhead development, and factories for manufacturing missiles, centrifuges, and other atomic weapons-related equipment. Israel would not have to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors. Israel could launch attacks from the air, land, and sea, employ cyberattacks and mount special forces operations.

Two impediments to an Israeli attack are said to be the inability to refuel its planes and destroy Iranian facilities buried deep underground. However, Israel now reportedly can fly its F-35 stealth fighter jets from Israel to Iran without mid-air refueling.62 It also acquired bunker-buster bombs from the United States that could damage, if not destroy, nuclear sites.

Should the United States decide to use military force against Iran, it has various options. One would be to bomb the nuclear facilities. The U.S. can conduct sustained attacks over an extended period. It also has a more powerful bunker-busting bomb capable of destroying Iran’s facilities.63 The U.S. is also likely to strike far more targets than Israel, aiming to take out missile bases, launchers, and production facilities. It could hit Kharg Island, from which Iran exports 90% of its oil and gas, and the port of Bandar Abbas, which is responsible for 90% of Iran’s container trade.64 A broader strike might include refineries, natural gas terminals, railways, bridges, roads, and power plants. A no-fly zone and naval embargo could also be imposed. These measures would damage infrastructure and potentially cripple Iran’s economy.

Gen. James Mattis, then head of U.S. Central Command, said in 2013 that the U.S. military “has the ability to bring Iran to its knees.” He said, “There are [a] number of means to do that.”65

Meanwhile, the United States and Israel have used cyber warfare to inhibit Iran’s pursuit of a bomb.66 In 2010, a computer worm called Stuxnet wreaked havoc on Iranian computer systems and led to the destruction or damage of hundreds of centrifuges.67 Two years later, Iran admitted that another cyberattack infected their computers, allowing the attackers to use them for surveillance. The “Wiper” program hit Iran’s oil ministry and erased its hard drives. It was later used to disrupt Iran’s railway and transport ministry.68 In 2019, the U.S. Cyber Command targeted computer systems that control Iranian missile launches and those used by an Iranian intelligence group believed to be involved in planning attacks against oil tankers.69

Israel has also assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaged facilities related to developing a weapon.70 These operations slowed but did not stop Iran’s nuclear project.

MYTH

“Snapback” sanctions ensured Iran would adhere to the nuclear agreement.

FACT

The Obama administration sold the nuclear agreement with a promise to “snapback” penalties if Iran failed to comply with the deal.71 “If Iran violates the [nuclear] agreement over the next decade,” President Obama assured everyone that “all of the sanctions can snap back into place.”

The foreign ministers of the six countries that signed the JCPOA agreed. Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsed the nuclear agreement, ended United Nations sanctions against Iran, and called for the reinstatement of sanctions if Iran violated the terms of the JCPOA.

Given the confidence in the deal that Obama and other signatories expressed, why was it necessary to raise the specter of renewing the sanctions before they had even been lifted?

The answer was simple. According to the Royal United Services Institute, it resulted from their “deep distrust” of the deal.72

At the time, the Wall Street Journal called the idea that sanctions would be snapped back “another Administration fantasy.”73 The editorial was prophetic.

Once the JCPOA was signed, sanctions were removed, and companies from around the world raced to Iran with business proposals. Within weeks, dozens had signed deals worth billions of dollars. The Europeans, Chinese, and Russians then did everything possible to ensure that nothing would prevent trading with Iran regardless of Iranian violations of the JCPOA. China and Russia also had the power to veto any UN Security Council Resolution to reimpose sanctions.

President Trump imposed stricter sanctions when he withdrew from the deal. The remaining signatories opposed them and took steps to evade them. When Trump unilaterally implemented the snapback option, no country joined the United States.

Joe Biden criticized Trump’s actions, but his administration continued to impose new sanctions on Iran while promising to ease or eliminate them if Iran complied with the JCPOA. Without international backing, however, sanctions have failed to modify Iran’s behavior.

Iran openly disregarded its terms because the nuclear deal was built on a “fantasy,” and threats of snapback sanctions were hollow.

MYTH

The Iran deal eliminates the danger of nuclear proliferation.

FACT

One of the most severe but understated threats created by Iran’s nuclear program is proliferation. President Obama acknowledged the danger when he stated, “It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon.” He added, “Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe.” Obama continued, “The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.”74

“If Iran gets nuclear weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued, “it would set off a mad dash by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off.”75

Like Iran, Arab countries publicly claim they are only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Still, the fear is that some or all will follow the Iranian example and try to build a bomb. Since 2006, at least 13 Arab countries either announced plans to explore atomic energy or revived preexisting nuclear programs in response to Iran’s nuclear program.76

More alarming are the more explicit expressions by Middle East leaders that they will acquire a bomb if Iran builds one. In 2012, before the JCPOA was signed, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah warned, “If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.”77 After the agreement was approved, Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal reiterated that one option for responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be “the acquisitions of nuclear weapons, to face whatever eventuality might come from Iran.”78

In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan said, “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads,” but the West insists that “we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.”79

Former president Bill Clinton explained the danger of any country acquiring a nuclear capability. “The more of these weapons you have hanging around, the more fissile material you’ve got, the more they’re vulnerable to being stolen or sold or just simply transferred to terrorists.” He added, “even if the [Iranian] government didn’t directly sanction it, it wouldn’t be that much trouble 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% of Washington, D.C.80

The international community does not have a good record in preventing rogue nations from developing nuclear weapons. Iraq was developing a bomb until Israel destroyed its nuclear reactor in 1981. Similarly, Syria managed to build a secret nuclear facility under the nose of the international watchdogs and was stopped only by an Israeli military operation.

The region will become far more dangerous as the number of countries engaged in nuclear activities grows. More ominously, the expansion of the Middle East atomic club would pose a threat to global peace and stability.

MYTH

The nuclear agreement put an end to Iran’s ballistic missile research.

FACT

While Iran’s nuclear program is of greatest concern, the danger of a conventional Iranian attack with advanced missiles has steadily grown. The National Council of the Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, said in 1989 that North Korea helped Iran build dozens of underground tunnels and facilities for constructing nuclear-capable missiles.81

Iran has repeatedly violated UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which forbids Iran from engaging in “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology” [emphasis added].82

Iran continues to develop, test, and build missiles that have a longer range and are more accurate. Some are capable of nuclear weapons delivery.83 Iran also has an arsenal of cruise missiles capable of reaching Israel and carrying nuclear weapons.84

In 2021, Washington Institute fellow Farzin Nadimi said, “Iran has unveiled ten new ballistic missiles and three new satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) since 2015, along with several new transport and launch systems and methods.” Nadimi also noted that Iran had developed an automated launch system and a more accurate missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead with a range of more than 1,200 miles (1,900 km.). Israel is about 1,100 miles (1,770 km.) from Iran.85

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate in 2016 that “Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.”86

As early as 2012, the Pentagon expressed concern that Iran’s missiles threaten “U.S. forces, allies, and partners in regions where the United States deploys troops and maintains security relationships.”87

This proved prescient as Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles in January 2020 that hit two Iraqi military installations housing U.S. troops.88 Iranian missiles have also targeted the capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region and Saudi Arabia. 89

Iran’s Arab neighbors do not have missile defenses or the ability to deter an Iranian attack. Iran could “blackmail such states into meeting demands, for example, to raise oil prices, cut oil production, or even withhold cooperation with the U.S. on which their very survival depends.”90

The threat stimulated the normalization of relations between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates and increased security cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The United States, Israel, and the Gulf states have discussed a security alliance connecting air defense systems to protect them from Iranian drone and missile attacks.91

Israel lobbied for a ban on ballistic missile development to be part of the nuclear deal, but the United States insisted on keeping that issue separate.

The range of (our) missiles covers all of Israel today. That means the fall of the Zionist regime, which will certainly come soon.

—Iranian General Mohammad Ali Jafari92

MYTH

Attacking Iran will create more instability and endanger U.S. interests.

FACT

The Middle East is unstable because of ongoing disputes between various Arab states. An increased level of chaos has spread across the region due to upheavals in North Africa, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf, continuing unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the civil war in Syria.

Nevertheless, some, like former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have warned that an attack on Iran will “haunt us for generations” in the Middle East.93 If Israel attacks, some analysts worry Iran will strike U.S. targets. However, this would provoke an American response and exponentially increase the punishment inflicted on Iran.

U.S. officials feared dire consequences when Israel attacked nuclear reactors in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007). Both attacks eliminated potentially destabilizing weapons programs and discouraged a regional nuclear arms race. They did not harm American interests or provoke greater instability. In the Iraqi case, Israel’s action ensured that the United States would not face the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear response during the 1991 Gulf War.

In the worst case, a strike on Iran would cause a backlash in the region among people angered by an attack on a Muslim nation. It may unite the Iranian people in defense of their country. Rulers of conservative regimes allied with the United States and signatories to the Abraham Accords would likely be accused of complicity in the attack.

While the pessimistic scenario envisions the Iranian population rallying around its leaders in the event of a military strike, it is also possible that the Iranian people will launch a “Persian Spring” demanding freedom and democracy from the regime that provoked a war. Protests erupted in 2022 unrelated to the nuclear issue that raised hopes for an end to the autocratic rule of the ayatollahs, but even if the government falls that is no assurance the country would abandon its nuclear program as many Iranians support it for nationalistic reasons.

In the short term, an attack on Iran might have a deleterious impact on oil prices as speculators react to the possibility of reduced supplies. In the long term, an attack could help stabilize the oil market; it would hamper Iran’s ability to threaten global oil supplies and weaken its position within OPEC, where it has advocated stricter quotas to drive up prices.

A successful strike on Iran could also help free the people of Syria and Lebanon. Without the support of Tehran, Syrian President Bashar Assad would lose his principal patron in the region, and Syria would no longer serve as a forward Iranian base for threatening Israel. The fall of Iran’s leadership would also weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing the organization’s ability to terrorize Israel and control Lebanese affairs.

Furthermore, destroying the Iranian program would eliminate the threat of Iranian-sponsored nuclear terrorism and proliferation. It would also signal to the rest of the region that nuclear weapons programs will not be tolerated.

It is easy for opponents of military action to construct nightmare scenarios that will scare the public and sway world leaders away from confrontation with Iran. However, military planners and politicians must weigh the risk of an adverse outcome and the danger posed by inaction against the potential benefits of eliminating Iran’s nuclear program.


1 Dean Nelson, “A. Q. Khan Boasts of Helping Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” The Telegraph, (September 10, 2009).

2 Robin Wright and Keith Richburg, “Powell Says Iran Is Pursuing the Bomb,” Washington Post, (November 18, 2004).

3 Raheb Homavandi, “Iran Says It Won’t Suspend Atomic Work,” Irish Times, (February 27, 2007).

4 Glenn Kessler, “Analysis: Iranian Plan Will Put Nation a Step Closer to Having Material for Bomb,” Washington Post, (February 9, 2010).

5 David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “UN Says Iran Has Fuel for 2 Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, (May 31, 2010).

6 “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” The White House, (April 2, 2015).

7 Laurence Norman, “UN Says Iran Has Enough Uranium to Produce Nuclear Weapon,” Wall Street Journal, (May 30, 2022).

8 “Iran’s nuclear programme is ‘galloping ahead’, IAEA chief says,” Reuters, (July 22, 2022).

9 David Albright and Andrea Stricker, “Don't Rejoin the Iran Deal, Fix It,” The National Interest, (April 4, 2019).

10 Laurence Norman, “Iran’s Enriched Uranium Stockpile Is 12 Times Nuclear Accord’s Cap, UN Agency Says,” Wall Street Journal, (November 11, 2020).

11 “Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals,” Editorial, Washington Post, (April 2, 2015).

12 Jon Gambrell, “Iran’s supreme leader: Vienna offers ‘not worth looking at,’” AP, (April 14, 2021); Farnaz Fassihi, David E. Sanger, and William J. Broad, “Iran Vows to Increase Uranium Enrichment After Attack on Nuclear Site,” New York Times, (April 13, 2021).

13 Francois Murphy, “Iran adds advanced machines enriching underground at Natanz: IAEA,” Reuters, (April 1, 2021).

14 “Iran's Nuclear Chief Salehi: We Had Secretly Purchased Replacements for Nuclear Equipment That the JCPOA Had Required Us to Destroy; Yellowcake Production Facilities are Operational; We Are Advancing in Nuclear Propulsion,” MEMRI, (January 22, 2019).

15 Andrea Stricker, “Biden Administration Should Ascertain the Status of Iran’s Arak Reactor,” FDD, (May 5, 2021).

16 William Tobey, “Iran’s Parchin Particles: Why Should Two Mites of Uranium Matter?” Foreign Policy, (July 7, 2016).

17 Rebecca Shimoni Stoil, “Ex-IAEA Deputy: Deal Puts Iran on Nuke Threshold for 10 Years, Then Gets Worse,” Times of Israel, (April 7, 2015).

18 Laurence Norman, “UN Nuclear Watchdog Rebukes Iran for Failure to Cooperate With Probe,” Wall Street Journal, (June 8, 2022); Kareem Fahim and Karen DeYoung, “Iran will remove 27 cameras from nuclear sites, UN watchdog says,” Washington Post, (June 9, 2022).

19 David Albright and Olli Heinonen, “Verifying Section T of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Iranian Military Site Access Essential to JCPOA Section T Verification,” Institute for Science and International Security, (August 31, 2017).

20 “Netanyahu Claims Iran Nuclear Deal Based on Lies,” Haaretz, (April 30, 2018).

21 Laurence Norman, “ran UN Inspectors Find Radioactive Traces, Raising Fresh Concerns,” Wall Street Journal, (February 5, 2021).

22 Ephraim Kam, “Deal Makes Iran Stronger Than Ever,” Israel Hayom, (April 7, 2015).

23 “Transcript: President Obama’s Full NPR Interview on Iran Nuclear Deal,” NPR, (April 7, 2015).

24 “White House says Iran is ‘a few weeks or less’ from bomb breakout,” Times of Israel, (April 27, 2022).

25 “Iran’s nuclear programme is ‘galloping ahead’, IAEA chief says -El Pais,” Reuters, (July 22, 2022).

26 “Statement by the President on Iran,” The White House, (July 14, 2015).

27 Aaron Kliegman, “Clapper: Iran Views Deal as ‘Means to Remove Sanctions while Preserving Nuclear Capabilities,’” Washington Free Beacon, (February 9, 2016).

28 Oren Dorell, “Lawmakers alarmed over Iranian nuclear windfall,” USA Today, (July 5, 2015).

29 James Risen, “Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances,” New York Times, (April 13, 2012).

30 “Ahmadinejad: Israel Will Disappear from Map,” AP, (June 3, 2008).

31 “Iran: We Will Help ‘Cut Out the Cancer of Israel,’” The Telegraph, (February 3, 2012).

32 Fars News (Iran), (October 9, 2020), translated by MEMRI.

33 “Just one wrong move!” Tehran Times, (December 14, 2021).

34 Bernard Lewis, “Does Iran have something in store?” Wall Street Journal, (August 8, 2006).

35 Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1991), p. 249.

36 “Iran’s supreme leader threatens to raze Tel Aviv, Haifa,” Times of Israel, (March 21, 2013).

37 Jerusalem Report, (March 11, 2002).

38 Hashemi Rafsanjani, “Qods Day Speech (Jerusalem Day),” quoted in Dalia Dassa Kaye, Alireza Nader, and Parisa Roshan, “Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry,” RAND, (2011).

39 “Iran’s Raisi threatens Israel, says no return to nuke deal if IAEA probe continues,” Times of Israel, (August 29, 2022).

40 “Just one wrong move!” Tehran Times, (December 14, 2021).

41 Iran Press Service, (December 14, 2001); see also “Former Iranian President Rafsanjani on Using a Nuclear Bomb against Israel,” MEMRI, (January 3, 2002).

42 “AIP Calls on Iran to Respect Int’l Treaties Relevant to Bahrain, UAE,” Kuwait News Agency, (March 22, 2009).

43 Giles Whittell, “Bahrain Accuses Iran of Nuclear Weapons Lie,” TimesOnline, (November 2, 2007).

44 Al-Hayat (London) May 16, 2008, “Arab League Slams Iran’s ‘Provocation,’” Jerusalem Post, (March 22, 2009).

45 Giles Whittell, “Bahrain Accuses Iran of Nuclear Weapons Lie,” TimesOnline, (November 2, 2007).

46 AIP Calls on Iran to Respect Int’l Treaties Relevant to Bahrain, UAE,” Kuwait News Agency, (March 22, 2009); “Abu Musa Island,” GlobalSecurity.org, (October 15, 2008).

47 Alexander Smith, “Biden tells Israel that Iran ‘will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch,’” NBC News, (June 29, 2021).

48 “Morocco Severs Relations with Iran,” Al-Jazeera, (March 8, 2009).

49 “Gül: Turkey Will Not Accept Iran Possessing Nuclear Weapons,” Today’s Zaman (January 3, 2013).

50 David Jackson, “Iran, Iraq Top Agendas for Meetings with Allies,” USA Today, (November 1, 2007).

51 David Jackson, “Busy Week with World Leaders Planned,” USA Today, (November 9, 2011).

52 “David Cameron Threatens More Iran Nuclear Sanctions,” BBC, (February 23, 2011).

53 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Speech at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference,” Jewish Virtual Library, (March 5, 2012).

54 “Saudi King Abdullah and Senior Princes on Saudi Policy toward Iraq,” Wikileaks, (April 20, 2008).

55 Bret Stephens, “A Courageous Trump Call on a Lousy Iran Deal,” New York Times, (May 8, 2018).

56 Lahav Harkov, “Biden: If diplomacy fails with Iran, we have other options,” Jerusalem Post, (August 28, 2021).

57 Patrick Kingsley, Isabel Kershner, and Peter Baker, “Israel urges the U.S. to put pressure on Iran,” New York Times, (July 14, 2022).

58 Ehud Barak, “Ehud Barak: Iran Has Escaped a Noose,” Time, (April 2, 2015).

59 Ibid.

60 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Speech at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference,” Jewish Virtual Library, (March 5, 2012).

61 Dan Williams, “Our warplanes can reach Iran, Israeli minister warns amid nuclear talks,” Reuters, (April 29, 2021).

62 Amir Bohbot, “Israel makes dramatic upgrades to military plans to attack Iran,” Jerusalem Post, (June 8, 2022).

63 Kristina Wong, “Defense secretary: Bunker-busting bomb against Iran ‘ready to go,’” The Hill, (April 10, 2015).

64 Hillel Frisch, “What an Israel-Iran war could look like,” Jerusalem Post, (May 8, 2018).

65 Lolita C. Baldor, “Top US commander: Iran sanctions not working,” AP, (March 5, 2013).

66 Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet Was Work of U.S. and Israeli Experts, Officials Say,” Washington Post, (June 2, 2012).

67 William J. Broad, John Markoff, and David Sanger, “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay,” New York Times, (January 15, 2011).

68 Kim Zetter, “Wiper Malware That Hit Iran Left Possible Clues of Its Origins,” Wired, (August 29, 2012); Jeremy Kirk, “Wiper Malware Used in Attack Against Iran's Train System,” BankInfoSecurity, (July 30, 2021).

69 Julian E. Barnes and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “U.S. Carried Out Cyberattacks on Iran,” New York Times, June 22, 2019).

70 Mitchell Bard, “Military Options Against Iran,” Jewish Virtual Library.

71 Eric B. Lorber and Peter Feaver, “Do the Iran Deal’s ‘Snapback’ Sanctions Have Teeth?” Foreign Policy, (July 21, 2015).

72 Somini Sengupta, “‘Snapback’ Is an Easy Way to Reimpose Iran Penalties,” New York Times, (July 16, 2015).

73 “Obama’s Snap-Back Fantasy,” Wall Street Journal, (June 16, 2015).

74 Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I Don’t Bluff,’” The Atlantic, (March 2, 2012).

75 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Speech at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference,” Jewish Virtual Library, (March 5, 2012).

76 Friedrich Steinhausler, “Infrastructure Security and Nuclear Power,” Strategic Insights, Volume VIII, Issue 5, (December 2009).

77 Chemi Shalev, “Dennis Ross: Saudi King Vowed to Obtain Nuclear Bomb after Iran,” Haaretz, (May 30, 2012).

78 Nicole Gaouette, “Saudi Prince: Getting Nukes an Option if Iran Breaks Deal,” CNN, (May 7, 2016).

79 David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Erdogan’s Ambitions Go Beyond Syria. He Says He Wants Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, (October 20, 2019).

80 Piers Morgan Tonight, (September 25, 2012).

81 Luis Martinez and Jacqueline Shire, “Iran Is Building Nukes in Underground Locations,” ABC News, (November 21, 2005).

82 Louis Charonneau, “Iran’s October Missile Test Violated UN Ban: Expert Panel,” Reuters, (December 15, 2015).

83 Michael Elleman, “Are Iran’s ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable?” IISS, (February 28, 2018).

84 Jeremy Binnie, “Iran unveils cruise missiles in underground UAV base,” Janes, (May 30, 2022); Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Experts: If it gets nukes, Iran could fire using cruise missiles,” Jerusalem Post, (May 17, 2021).

85 Farzin Nadimi, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Arsenal Is Still Growing in Size, Reach, and Accuracy,” Washington Institute, (December 13, 2021).

86 James R. Clapper, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Statement for the Record, Senate Armed Services Committee, (February 9, 2016).

87 Steven A. Hildreth, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Programs,” Congressional Research Service (December 6, 2012).

88 Stephen M. McCall, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Programs,” Congressional Research Service, (January 9, 2020).

89 Michael Knights, “Iran’s Cross-Border Strikes: A Pattern in Search of a Policy,” Washington Institute, (March 15, 2022).

90 Hildreth.

91 Aziz El Yaakoubi, Andrew Mills, and Matt Spetalnick, “US, Israel push Arab allies for joint defence pact amid Iran tensions,” Reuters, (July 7, 2022).

92 Mehrdad Balali, “Khamenei Tells Iran Armed Forces to Build Up ‘Irrespective’ of Diplomacy,” Reuters, (November 30, 2014).

93 “Gates: No blank check from US to Israel on Iran,“ Jerusalem Post, (October 5, 2012).