Last week, Iran surprised the world with its reaction to North Korea’s third nuclear test. The Islamic Republic declared that all nuclear weapons in the world should be destroyed, a shocking statement in the eyes of those in the West who believe Iran is attempting to build up its own nuclear arsenal.
Whether Iran is trying to create nuclear weapons is unclear. Its government fervently claims that its nuclear programs are meant solely for providing energy, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has not found hard evidence to the contrary. But Iran’s public statements on the issue are so conflicting and confusing that it is impossible to determine the country’s true goal.
After the initial statement last week condemning nuclear weapons, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, declared that Iran could create nukes if it wanted. The Ayatollah claimed that Iran does not “want to build atomic weapons. But if we didn’t believe so and intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us.”
This statement was made in the midst of requests by Iran for Western countries, in particular the United States, to lift harsh sanctions they have put in place in a push to stop the Iranian nuclear program. While the statement is not quite a threat, it does not inspire confidence in Iran’s commitment to nonproliferation.
There are other major signs that Iran’s comments immediately after the nuclear test are not representative of their actual thoughts or actions on the issue. The most troubling fact is that the Iranian who likely conceived of Iran’s nuclear program observed the test in North Korea firsthand.
Iran seems to desperately want the global community to believe that it is not creating nuclear weapons. Whether this is because that is the truth or because they are trying to cover up a weapons program remains to be seen, but sending mixed signals to the world on its intentions about nuclear weapons does not help Iran’s cause.
Sweeping statements against proliferation — like the declaration that every country should destroy its nuclear weapons — are the outlier for Iran and only serve to draw attention to its nuclear program. They are not convincing the world that Iran is not trying to build nuclear weapons. The only way for Iran to do this is to open up more to IAEA inspectors — but instead, they sent the deputy IAEA chief home from talks last Thursday with no conclusion as to when they would grant IAEA requests for new inspectors.
The best overall solution to this situation is indeed Iran’s: all countries should destroy their nuclear weapons. But that isn’t going to happen and in the meantime, Iran needs to be more open about its program if it truly does not want any more nuclear proliferation.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19 print edition. Jessice Littman is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected]