In an interview on state television early last month, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi seemed to make a masked threat regarding the Middle Eastern nation’s long pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“The supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has explicitly said in his fatwa that nuclear weapons are against sharia law and the Islamic Republic sees them as religiously forbidden and does not pursue them,” he said.
“But a cornered cat may behave differently from when the cat is free. And if they (Western powers) push Iran in that direction, then it’s no longer Iran’s fault.”
According to Maysam Behravesh, a research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, it was an “unprecedented public threat (that) captured wide media attention.”
“Domestic critics, particularly hard-liners, slammed President Hassan Rouhani’s intelligence minister for harming Iranian interests by undermining Khamenei’s religious edict against weapons of mass destruction,” he recently wrote in Foreign Policy. “Middle East watchers abroad focused on the fatwa factor as well, mostly to demonstrate Iranian leaders’ untrustworthiness. Others construed Alavi’s statements as a ‘pressure’ tactic to spur the Biden administration into rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. All these responses misunderstand the real significance of Alavi’s ‘cornered cat’ threat. The whole debate over Khamenei’s fatwa banning nuclear weapons has always been much ado about nothing; it never really mattered in the first place for either side.”
Alavi’s statements came after a series of embarrassing security breaches and counterintelligence failures. In recent years, Iran has lost Qassem Soleimani, the chief architect of its regional strategy, and it culminated with the assassination of Iran’s nuclear strategy architect Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran last November.
Shortly after the assassination of Soleimani, a conservative media outlet in Tehran published a piece asking its readers about nuclear weapons deterrence and the ways it can advance the country’s national security interests.
“Some analysts believe that Iran’s possession of a nuclear deterrent will check Israel’s regional ambitions, while others maintain that it can deter big powers from stoking tensions and starting new wars in the region,” the article read.
In another conservative publication, it contended that the United States’ “destructive policies” against Iran and “Europeans’ inaction” have only pushed Iran to make the “big decision.”
“Why should Iran commit to international regulations and refrain from constructing nuclear weapons while its enemies are all equipped with these weapons and threaten to destroy Iran on a daily basis?” asked another analysis that was published.
According to Behravesh, there are no Iranian public opinion polls that gauge citizens’ view of nuclear weapons or how it may have changed over the past decade.
But a new survey conducted jointly by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and the Canada-based polling agency IranPoll indicates that “anti-compromise views and sentiments have considerably hardened over the past years.” Most notably, public support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dropped significantly from 76 percent in August 2015 to just 51 percent in February 2021.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.