President Obama noted at the beginning of April that the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—along with the recent nuclear security summit, next month’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference and the pursuit of additional UNSC sanctions—is part of a message that “the international community is serious about Iran facing consequences if it doesn’t change its behavior.” The updated NPR, among other things, limits the scenarios under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons; violators of the NPT are viewed as exceptional cases and receive no immunity from U.S. nuclear strikes meant to deter conventional or chemical and biological attacks. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said: “if there is a message for Iran and North Korea [in the NPR], it is that if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that's covered in the NPR. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.” It is unlikely that these messages—intended to “allow Iran to make a different kind of calculation,” according to President Obama—have thus far made the regime feel isolated or persuaded it to change its behavior, based on the responses and actions of the regime.
The NPR reiterates that Iran has “violated non-proliferation obligations, defied directives of the United Nations Security Council, pursued missile delivery capabilities, and resisted international efforts to resolve through diplomatic means the crises they have created.” Moreover, the regime’s actions have weakened the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its “illicit supply of arms and sensitive material and technologies has heightened global proliferation risks and regional tensions.” The document goes on to state that the U.S. is taking steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and provides the assurance that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” States refusing to comply with their obligations, like Iran, however, face a “narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.” This limited option for nuclear deterrence against non-nuclear, non-compliant NPT members is further conditioned with language that the U.S. “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances” to defend vital American and allied interests.
The retorts to the NPR have emerged from key figures within the Iranian regime as the Obama administration released the NPR and hosted a 47-nation summit on nuclear security in April:
· Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i on April 21: “The international community should not let Obama get away with nuclear threats…We will not allow America to renew its hellish dominance over Iran by using such threats.” Khamene’i initially called President Obama’s statements on the NPR “disgraceful” and an indication that “the US government is wicked and unreliable.”
· Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on April 12: “World summits being organized these days are intended to humiliate human beings…These foolish people who are in charge are like stupid, retarded people who brandish their swords whenever they face shortcomings, without realizing that the time for this type of thing is over.” On April 7, he referred to President Obama as an “inexperienced and amateur politician” and opined that “American politicians are like cowboys. Whenever they have legal shortcomings, their hands go to their guns.”
· Hossein Shariatmadari, appointed by Khamene’i as editor of Kayhan, a daily newspaper reflective of the supreme leader’s views, wrote on April 12 that Obama is “undoubtedly and most certainly one of those savage American statesmen” and that his “stupidity is much greater than his savage character.”
· Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi said two days after the release of the NPR that: “If the US seriously threatens Iran and takes an action against Iran, none of the American soldiers in the region would return to the United States alive.” Iran’s defense minister and former IRGC Qods Force chief, Ahmad Vahidi, said the same day: “We, too, announce that we will use all options to defend ourselves.” The deputy head of Iran’s armed forces general staff, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, said on April 13: “Obama would never have uttered such cheap remarks if he had not suffered a major weakness and had not faced the (present) all-around dead-end in dealing with Iran.”
· Parliament speaker Ali Larijani said the NPR remarks “show that the US President is taking the same previous arrogant and hegemonic approach through demagogic gestures.” Three-quarters of the parliament also signed a petition calling on the foreign ministry to lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations on the grounds that the U.S. represents a “threat against international peace.”
· Parliament member Ali Zanjani on April 26: “The US nuclear threat against the Islamic Iran is a scandal for the global arrogance and the world should not ignore it easily.” A senior parliamentarian on the national security and foreign policy committee, Kazzem Jalali: “If the world order is a just and correct order, it should then react to the US [NPR] threats.”
· Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nation, Mohammad Khazaee, wrote a letter to the United Nations describing the statements by President Obama and Secretary Gates as “nuclear blackmail” against Iran, “a serious violation” of the United Nations charter, and “a real threat to international peace and security.”
· Judiciary head Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani on April 25: “Nuclear threat(s) against Iran proves that the West’s claims of championing human rights are lies…It is regrettable that official international bodies remained silent on the implicit and unwise threat of US President.”
· Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts body charged with appointing the supreme leader, said during Friday prayers in Tehran following the NPR release: “Dealing with Iran is playing with the lion's tail... if the US wants to act crazily, then friends of the Islamic revolution will endanger America's interests.”
These responses to the NPR language display the intransigent position of the Islamic Republic and highlight the regime’s concerted effort to counter the international community and its concerns. These statements are not sporadic and represent only one case in an ongoing pattern of behavior exhibited by regime authorities. Specifically, officials and key figures confront international statements with vitriolic rebukes, present alternative narratives that in many cases avoid addressing substantive issues, and attempt to show the inevitable progression of the regime’s current course, in this case the advancement of the nuclear program.
Another example of this type of response surfaced in the regime’s announcement that it would host an international nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran on April 17-18 titled “Nuclear Energy For All, Nuclear Weapon For None.” The conference, boasting invitees from 60 countries, coincided with that week’s nuclear security summit in Washington. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman claimed that “Iran, as one of the standard-bearers of nuclear disarmament, is very serious about this issue. We hope that other countries will join us and act responsibly in nuclear disarmament.” Iran’s top atomic energy official, Ali Akbar Salehi, hailed the conference as a model for the NPT review conference in May.
The Iranian regime also attempted to show that the development of its nuclear program is inevitable. Ahmadinejad announced on April 9 that Iran had built a centrifuge machine capable of enriching uranium at six times the speed of its first-generation machines and added that, “Iran’s nuclear path is irreversible.” Salehi said five days later that Iran had amassed five kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. These types of enrichment-related activities continue “contrary to the relevant resolutions of the [IAEA] Board of Governors and the [United Nations] Security Council,” according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report.
Tehran’s ongoing behavior illustrates a failure on the part of the regime to cooperate with the international community in addressing the nuclear issue as cited by the IAEA. U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes recently noted that the administration has “not set regime change as a goal” for the United Nations Security Council sanctions being sought. The sanctions tool should instead, as described by President Obama, “allow Iran to make a different kind of calculation,” and in the words of senior NSC official Michael McFaul, “change Iranian behavior.” The united, hyperbolic and sequenced responses to the NPR and the broader pattern of the regime’s obstinacy raise serious questions about the assumptions underlying a strategy dedicated to affecting the Iranian regime’s behavior.
Maseh Zarif is research manager and the Iran team lead for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Frederick W. Kagan as its author.