Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi warned in a television interview on February 10, 2021, that Iran might be drawn into a military nuclear program. “Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes … and considers it a prohibited weapon. But I must make it clear that if a cat is pushed into the corner, it may behave differently from a cat that walks freely. If Iran is pushed into a corner, it will not be its fault [implying the production of nuclear weapons] but rather the fault of those pushing it.”
- Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, wrote that the minister had made “a major blunder” and his comments “are very wrong in itself, do not reflect the policies of the Islamic Republic, contradict the declarations of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, and may have serious consequences for the state.”
- Alavi’s ministry is responsible for investigating the killing of nuclear scientist Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. In his interview, he claimed, “We asked the relevant elements of the armed forces to do the intelligence work [and assist to deter the terrorist act] because the traitor who prepared the ground for the assassination was a member of the armed forces.”
- Alavi’s remarks could not have been made without receiving the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader and are part of mounting pressures that Iran is exerting on the Biden administration groping its way back to the JCPOA.
- The remarks made by the Iranian Intelligence Minister reflect internal power struggles within the Iranian security and intelligence apparatuses after a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists and the sabotage of sensitive nuclear facilities in Iran.
On February 9 and 10, 2021, the Tasnim news agency (affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards) strongly criticized Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, following his remarks in a television interview in which he discussed burning issues such as the future of Iran’s nuclear program and the results of his ministry’s investigation into the attack on nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.2 Alavi warned in a live television interview on February 10, 2021, that Iran might be drawn into a military nuclear program:3
Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and the Iranian Supreme Leader even stated in a fatwa4 [ruling] that the production of nuclear weapons contravenes religious law (shari’a), and Iran will not try to obtain it and considers it a prohibited weapon. But, I must make it clear that if a cat is pushed into the corner, it may behave differently from a cat that walks freely.5 If Iran is pushed into a corner, it will not be its fault [implying the production of nuclear weapons] but rather the fault of those pushing it. Under normal circumstances, Iran has no such intention or plan… Once we decided, in line with the Supreme Leader’s orders, to begin [uranium enrichment] to 20%, we did it. Our nuclear capabilities remain intact, and our nuclear industry operates in full force. Our R&D has made the IR6 [advanced centrifuges] operational to produce enriched uranium. Each IR6 centrifuge does the work of ten old [IR1] centrifuges. It needs less space but has higher output.
The Intelligence Minister revealed that “the traitor who prepared the ground for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a member of the armed forces [referring to the Revolutionary Guards], while the Ministry of Intelligence does not have the authority to interrogate members of the armed forces.”
Tasnim wrote that the minister had made “a major blunder” and not thought deeply about the implications of his grave remarks on these two important issues, and his “predictions” about the future of the nuclear program “astonished” the country. His comments, the publication continued, “are very wrong in itself, do not reflect the policies of the Islamic Republic, contradict the declarations of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, and may have serious consequences for the state.”6
The news agency added:
If Minister Alawi has a personal opinion on important issues in the country, he can keep it to himself or present it on his behalf as an ordinary person only after he has no state responsibility. But as long as he heads such an important office as the Ministry of Intelligence, he may not speak without paying attention to the consequences of his words or what is said in the name of the Islamic Republic.
The Revolutionary Guard-affiliated news agency declared:
The opposition of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, and the other state leaders to producing and using an atomic bomb is not a hypocritical position and has not been said just to please or deceive the West. Therefore, there is no need to create such a pressure point by someone talking about the possibility of assembling a bomb under special circumstances. The arguments of the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader of the Revolution raised frequently in speeches are clear and logical.
What would Iran want to achieve by producing a bomb? Does Iran want to use such a bomb? Absolutely not. How can the state use an atomic bomb when the Supreme Leader reiterates moral and religious limits even during the most difficult battles?
The use of atomic bombs and weapons of mass destruction can lead to severe consequences on civilians and even against nature. Non-compliance with religious and moral orders is fundamentally contrary to the fundamental philosophy of establishing the Islamic Republic. When the most important general of the revolution (Qassem Soleimani) – even on the battlefield and on the front lines of the war against ISIS – worried about the food of the animals in the vicinity, how can the state use a nuclear weapon or any other weapon of mass destruction?
Tasnim goes on to ask the Minister of Intelligence:
If the use of weapons of mass destruction is incompatible with the character of the Islamic Republic, what function can be considered for it? Can the bomb prevent a regime from collapsing? If so, why didn’t this weapon prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union as the world’s second-largest producer of nuclear weapons? All of these arguments have been highlighted frequently in the Supreme Leader’s speeches, so the Intelligence Minister’s latest statement is very strange and worthy of criticism.
The Minister of Intelligence’s statement is completely contrary to the national interest in that it can strengthen the West’s pressure points in the [nuclear] negotiations. More importantly, it can legitimize the Americans’ brutal sanctions.
Iran has always stressed that it never intended to obtain a bomb, nor has it taken action to do so, and, therefore, Tehran demands that the negotiations be held on the basis of “justice” versus “transparency.” In other words, the West would accept Iran’s right to unlimited industrial enrichment of uranium (including the right to heavy water and the necessary equipment) for the use of nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes, and in return, the West will have no problem with Iran’s transparency, i.e., oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran’s continued adherence to the additional protocol. But, unfortunately, the Minister of Intelligence’s ill-advised statement can bring Russia and China closer to the positions of the United States.
On the subject of the assassination of the nuclear scientist, Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Minister Alavi charged:
Only two hours after the event, officials began to criticize the functioning of the Ministry of Intelligence without even knowing what the ministry’s role in the investigations was. Our office warned already two months before the incident that the enemy was gathering intelligence in areas where our scientist Fakhrizadeh was traveling. Five days before the incident, we again warned that the enemy was planning to assassinate Fakhrizadeh, but we just didn’t know exactly when. I saw that some tweets claimed that the Ministry of Intelligence had estimated the time and location of the assassination but did not prevent it. That is not true. We didn’t have an accurate estimate of the timing of the incident. We correctly estimated the location of the assassination. We asked the relevant elements of the armed forces to do the intelligence work and meet with us on the subject because the traitor who prepared the ground for the assassination was a member of the armed forces. We asked them to come sit down and work on the case, but unfortunately, before their representative began his joint work with us on the case, the incident had already taken place.
The Tasnim agency responded:
Even on the subject of the minister’s remarks about the assassination of the scientist, there are some important points that show that the minister may not have thought carefully about the aspects of his statements. Public opinion cannot judge the correctness of his claim, which is controversial and contrary to security regulations.
His words on the subject are a mistake. The greater damage is that his statement places the blame for the incident inward while the blame falls on outside enemies. What’s the point of dragging the conflict inside? What’s more, if other intelligence organizations in the country want to defend themselves in this area, many issues will be said and exposed, and the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.
Who Failed to Stop the Assassination of the Nuclear Scientist?
Second, suppose that all the minister’s words about the assassination of Fakhrizadeh are totally accurate. Public opinion will ask: if the Ministry of Intelligence knew where the assassination would take place, why didn’t the Ministry keep the area under tight surveillance 24 hours a day? Wasn’t Fakhrizadeh important enough for the Intelligence Minister to issue an order closely monitoring where the enemy planned to kill him? After all, a few years ago, the Intelligence Coordination Council was established in the country, in which all intelligence and security agencies are members and whose chairman is the Minister of Intelligence. Therefore, Mr. Minister, we ask you, as chairman of the state’s Intelligence Coordination Council, did you not have the authority to play a more active role to prevent the assassination?
Third: if the minister believes that he can exonerate his office on charges of negligence and lay the blame on other bodies … then he is wrong. The reality differs from this view. Society doesn’t differentiate between the regime’s various intelligence bodies but considers them as a whole who protect the nation’s security. Does such a statement by the minister promote and reinforce the sense of security or weaken it? Society sees the person in charge of the Ministry of Intelligence as very important, who then presents the other intelligence bodies as negligent organizations while he exonerates the office he is in charge of.
Fourth, one has to ask the minister whether the assassination case has been so fully investigated by the highest levels of the country’s security organizations that he has already taken a sweeping position on the issue in front of the public.8
The Minister of Intelligence Alavi’s Motive
Despite the strong criticism of the conduct of the Minister of Intelligence and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and the insinuations that Iran might act to obtain a nuclear weapon, it seems that such a statement could not have been made without the approval of the Iranian leader. Moreover, Alawi’s remarks appear to be part of a series of pressures exerted by Iran on the Biden administration to push the possibility of the United States returning to the nuclear deal framework. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department responded to the Intelligence Minister, saying, “It’s not yet clear to us that Mahmoud Alavi was speaking for anyone but himself. We took note of those remarks. They are very concerning.”9
Iran is trying to put pressure on the Biden administration to lift all sanctions on Iran before Iran agrees to end violations of the nuclear agreement, especially in the field of uranium enrichment. It should be emphasized that on February 21, 2021, the ultimatum issued by the Iranian parliament to lift the sanctions is supposed to expire, and Iran may stop allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor some of Iran’s nuclear sites.
Furthermore, the remarks made by the Iranian Intelligence Minister reflect ongoing internal power struggles within the Iranian security and intelligence apparatuses after a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists and the sabotage of sensitive nuclear facilities in Iran, such as the centrifuge manufacturing plant in Natanz, and the ongoing struggle between the Intelligence Ministry, which operates within President Rouhani’s government, and the Revolutionary Guards, which has the support of the Iranian leader.
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