Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never been a gambling man. Since becoming “supreme leader” of Iran in 1989, he’s sought to preserve the status quo by eschewing transformative decisions. But as unprecedented political and economic pressures — including sanctions against Iran’s central bank and the European Union oil embargo — increasingly push his back against the wall, Khamenei seemingly has two paths to deliverance: a nuclear compromise or a nuclear weapon. Each could be perilous for him; both would be transformative for Iran.
Khamenei’s aversion to compromise is well-established. He has long said that Washington’s underlying goal in Tehran is not behavior change but regime change. “If you supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility, arrogant powers will make their threat more serious,” he has said. Just as perestroika hastened the demise of the Soviet Union, Khamenei believes that compromising on revolutionary ideals could destabilize the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Contemporary history has validated his worldview. To Khamenei’s thinking, it was Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s abdication of his nuclear program that made him vulnerable to the NATO intervention that ended his regime, and his life, last year. By contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998 helped turn foreign pressure and sanctions against it into foreign engagement and incentives.
While Khamenei may shun compromise, however, his path to a bomb would be perilous. Overt signs of weaponization — the expulsion of nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium — are likely to trigger U.S. or Israeli military action. Unless Khamenei wants to provoke a military attack on Iran for domestic expediency — an improbable but not implausible prospect — he will continue to favor a deliberate, incremental approach. Such a pace leaves the regime at least two years from a bomb.
But time may no longer be Khamenei’s friend. He must calculate whether his regime can sustain severe and escalating economic pressure for the period it would take to acquire a weapon.
Nor will the path toward a weapon be a straight line. Khamenei must consider that foreign intelligence services have probably penetrated Iran’s nuclear facilities and prepared various obstacles and pitfalls — computer viruses, “accidental” explosions, mysterious assassinations and defections — that could set Iran’s nuclear clock back even further.
Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.