Has There Been a Change in Iran’s Nuclear Doctrine?

Recent statements by Iran’s military and political officials regarding the revision of Iran’s nuclear and military doctrine have increased concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The article was written and edited before the May 19, 2024, helicopter crash killing Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian. 

These statements were made following the recent escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran. The failure of the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Israel’s alleged covert activities in Iran in recent years have made Tehran abandon its policy of strategic patience and no longer willing to fight a shadow war by relying on its regional non-state allies.

After the Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus on 1 April 2024, Iran responded with its first-ever direct attack on Israel, launching over 300 missiles and attack drones on 13 April 2024. In retaliation, Israel attacked an Iranian military airbase in Isfahan province. Before this escalation, Israel used to take measures against Iran in the region and inside the country’s territory in the form of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy. Iran was also at war with Israel in line with the policy of strategic patience in the gray zone. The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus should be evaluated in line with the ‘octopus doctrine’, which means that a conflict in the gray zone cannot destroy the head of the “octopus” – Iran. Iran retaliated to these attacks of Israel outside the gray zone. Furthermore, recent statements about the need to change Iran’s nuclear doctrine also gave warnings to the US and Israel to increase the cost of war outside the gray zone.

In this regard, following Iran’s direct attack on Israel, codenamed as ‘Operation True Promise’ by Iran, Hossein Salami, the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed that Iran had put in place what he called “a new equation.” Salami declared, “From now on, if the Zionist regime attacks our interests, assets, people, or citizens at any point, we will counterattack from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” 

During the last two years, the statements of mostly former Iranian officials about the change in Iran’s nuclear doctrine in case of existential threats have had an expanding trend in terms of quantity and quality. About two years ago, Kamal Kharrazi, senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and head of Iran’s Foreign Relations Council, said in a conversation with Al Jazeera that Iran has the capacity to produce the nuclear bomb.

In his recent interview with this network, which took place after the mutual attacks of Iran and Israel, he announced: “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.” Kharrazi declared, “This capacity (to produce the nuclear bomb) still exists, but we have not decided to build a nuclear bomb.”

Recently, Iranian military officials announced that if Israel wants to attack the country’s nuclear facilities, it is possible and conceivable to revise Iran’s nuclear doctrine and policies and deviate from the previous declaration considerations. Ahmad Haqtalab, the Revolutionary Guards‘ officer who heads the nuclear protection and security corps, said Tehran could review its long-standing „doctrine and nuclear policies,“ in which Iran has insisted it is running an atomic program only for civilian — and not military — use. “If the fake Zionist regime intends to resort to the threat of attacking our nuclear facilities as a means to put pressure on Iran, reviewing the current doctrine and nuclear policies of the Islamic Republic and distancing from past considerations is possible and conceivable,” Haqtalab said.

These statements were made a day before Israel directly attacked a military base in Isfahan and threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In fact, this revision goes back to the fatwa of Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of Iran, regarding the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and it emphasizes the fatwa’s temporary aspect. Not only can a faqīh, an Islamic jurist, change his previous fatwa, but he can also suspend the five pillars of Islam.

Haqtalab announced his position when there were reports of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as Israel’s retaliation to Iran’s missile and drone attack. Therefore, as the first military official, he spoke about the revision of Iran’s nuclear doctrine. Previous political officials, including Mahmoud Alavi, the former minister of intelligence in Hassan Rouhani’s government, had had similar statements. But the level of the current threat from behalf of Israel is so eminent that Tehran preferred a military official of the IRGC to put forward such a position. Therefore, this stance can be evaluated in line with Iran’s deterrence to prevent the threat of nuclear centers, which shows that conventional deterrence has not been effective.

Kharrazi made further statements after the direct attack of Israel against Iran, indicating a deterrent message following the threat against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

According to Abdolrasool Divsallar, an Iranian political scientist, Iran’s nuclear logic both in the 1990s and now has two basic foundations that are practically constant:

1. In case of failure or insufficiency of conventional deterrence, nuclear deterrence is prioritized; 2. In the case of a nuclear threat (either a threat to nuclear facilities or the use of weapons), it is not possible to continue the conventional balance.

Kharrazi’s statements regarding the possibility of revising Iran’s nuclear doctrine took place after the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi’s visit to Iran, which Grossi called a “completely unsatisfactory” cooperation. While the IAEA, based on its interpretation, evaluates the measures agreed with Iran in March 2023 as part of Iran’s duties in the framework of  NPT Safeguards Agreement, Iran considers it to be an action beyond its safeguard duties and implicitly carrying out those measures depends on the progress in nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions. Accordingly, the IAEA considers it an ‘agreement’ while Iran considers it a ‘joint statement’.

It should be noted that the understanding between Iran and the IAEA was made on March 2023, while two months later, in May, an understanding was reached between Iran and the United States. Based on this, the understanding between Iran and the IAEA can be considered a part of the understanding between Iran and the United States. Because after the non-implementation of the provisions of May understanding, that is, the non-release of Iran’s blocked funds, according to the IAEA, Tehran also imposed restrictions on the agency’s inspectors.

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation on April 15, 2024, aimed at countering China’s purchase of Iranian crude oil as part of a package of bills being brought to the floor in response to Iran’s attack on Israel. Such legislation may significantly reduce Iran’s benefits from the May understanding; until the time of writing, Iran had not been able to receive the blocked money released as a result of this understanding.

In sum, Iran’s political and military officials‘ statements regarding the revision of the nuclear doctrine can be evaluated not only as a deterrence message to Israel and the USA but also with political goals and to influence possible nuclear negotiations and relations with the IAEA.