Confronted with a regime that has been rapidly increasing its capacity to enrich uranium to bomb-grade, senior officials in the Biden administration have started to ask an eminently sensible question: Why hasn’t the Islamic Republic already gone nuclear? In a perfect world, the CIA or NSA would be able to read the intentions of our enemies and answer that question. Instead, it’s a good day when intelligence services can tell us what our enemies can do. And so with Iran, the Biden administration is in a perverse gray zone, uncertain whether the clerical regime intends to construct a nuclear weapon, and if so, when, and whether it has already mastered the technology required to detonate a nuclear device.
Despite its enormous progress since the program became serious in the early 1990s, the theocracy has exercised a certain restraint in building the wherewithal for an A-bomb. Assuming the regime has mastered the engineering required to construct a nuclear trigger (neither the CIA nor Israel’s Mossad appears to know), volition would be the missing element. As much as it’s a sensible question, asking it, and centering U.S. policy on it, are, of course, self-serving for the White House: The administration gets more wiggle room and less anxiety about Iran’s atomic progress if it surmises that its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has decided for whatever reasons not to construct a nuke.
There could be many reasons beyond the engineering challenges why the theocracy hasn’t yet built and tested a weapon. Likely the most important: Fear of the United States may not have sufficiently dissipated. The real issue for the Iranians has always been their assessment of U.S. willpower. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, his equally startling decision to back the surge in 2007, and Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s dark overlord, Qassem Suleimani, in 2020 after the president had failed to respond to Tehran’s assaults against Persian Gulf shipping and Saudi oil refineries in 2019, are telling examples of how Washington can both scare and confuse Tehran. Although the Biden administration hardly has a fearsome reputation in the Middle East, American military potential remains significant.
And there is the significant problem of Iranian internal security: The Islamic Republic leaks. There is a high correlation between advanced education and dissent; the theocracy may well be fearful of taking the final atomic steps because it’s uncertain whether such action would remain secret, thereby playing into the uncertainty about whether America’s willpower is spent. While the regime seems less fearful of an Israeli air strike against its nuclear facilities, which have been going underground, Israeli covert action—assassinations, drone strikes, and other impressive operations—against the nuclear program may have raised their anxiety about Israel’s ability to damage the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Mossad obviously picked up sensitive intelligence from Iranian sources, either human or through intercept, that allowed these daring covert-action operations. And concern about the loyalty of the educated elite has grown since the death of the young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, which provoked nationwide demonstrations and unprecedented rumination within ruling circles about the withering of revolutionary faith and popular anger against the theocracy.