The elimination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force within the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by a US force, raises quite a few questions. Some questions pertain to the elimination proper: the intelligence aspect of the operation; the geopolitical aspect of the reasons that had matured into the decision to go ahead with the targeted killing; the conflicts within the White House around that decision, et al. Other questions pertain to the stage following the elimination: whether the IRGC will remain the same without Soleimani; the Iranian response; whether the situation will evolve into an all-out war in the Middle East; the response by Hezbollah and many other questions. One of these questions involves the effect the elimination of Soleimani will have on the Iranian military nuclear project.
The Objective: the Survival of the Regime
Prior to the targeted killing, opinions on the matter were divided between those reasoning that the Iranian bomb is still years away from maturing, and those reasoning that Iran has already reached the status of a threshold state, within one year of a bomb. In other words – Tehran has completed the trials of the various components, the simulations, and the preparation of the fissile material, and is currently waiting for an order from the supreme leader to assemble the first weapon. According to this assumption, one year is the time the USA will need to organize the forces required in order to occupy Iran (as in the case of Iraq), so if such indications were detected, an order would be received, a weapon would be assembled, a test would be conducted somewhere in the Iranian desert, and the attempt to occupy Iran would be prevented.
It should be noted that overtly, there have been no clear indications as to the status of the Iranian nuclear project. The inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have never entered Iranian military bases – let alone the confidential ones. The Israeli Mossad delivered an Iranian nuclear archive, but it contained no current findings as to what had taken place after the year 2015. The economic sanctions notwithstanding, funding for the project seems to be available, through the laundering of money by a network of shell companies established in countries providing tax havens. The combination of the findings in the captured archive regarding the tests already conducted, the fact that funding is available and that confidential and military installations have remained beyond the reach of any western supervision, have led to a situation that is difficult to digest: apparently, Iran may already be a threshold state, and an Iranian nuclear device is only a matter of an order to be issued by the Iranian leadership.
Why does Iran want a nuclear bomb? Two primary theses provide answers. The first thesis maintains that the development of such a bomb is intended to destroy the State of Israel. This is the thesis Prime Minister Netanyahu has been promoting for more than a decade. It embodies a conditional logic – if Iran were to achieve a bomb, it would definitely destroy Israel. The deterministic nature of this thesis notwithstanding, history will show that apart from the USA in Japan (1945), no other country that had achieved such weapons has ever used them for offensive purposes. According to prevailing views, nuclear weapons were intended primarily to ensure the survival of the regime vis-à-vis external threats through deterrence.
The other thesis maintains that Iran develops the bomb to secure the survival of the regime and prevent the occupation of Iran by an external power with the intention of overthrowing the regime. For this reason, the USA has been waging, for a number of decades and with limited success, an economic war against Iran through sanctions, with the intention of encouraging the Iranian people to overthrow their government from within. The employment of kinetic resources on top of the economic sanctions could ignite a war and speed up the development of nuclear weapons. The elimination of Soleimani proves that the sanctions have failed to bring about a change of regime in Iran or a change in the policy or conduct of the present regime. An operation against a major figure within the Iranian regime – a person responsible for the execution of terrorism on behalf of his masters in Tehran – comes as an attempt by an external element (the USA) to enforce a change of conduct, having realized that the sanctions have failed to accomplish this goal.
The leadership in Tehran regards the recent US move as an external intervention intended to bring about a change in the conduct of the regime. As Soleimani was the executor of the regime's political ideology, a kinetic attack against Iran's executive capabilities means an external intervention in the affairs of the Iranian government. Going back to the nuclear aspect, the Iranians may regard this move as the beginning of a "change of conduct" process led by the USA with the intention of changing the regime in Tehran. The employment of arms has been added to the economic sanctions.
A US Attempt to Overthrow the Regime?
Through this perspective, the elimination of Soleimani is not different from a partial occupation of Iranian territory, despite the substantial difference – as far as international law is concerned – between these two situations. The elimination did not involve a violation of Iranian sovereignty, so it does not amount to a legal declaration of war against Iran, but it was an attempt that threatens the survival of the Iranian regime. It was an attack against an important symbol of the Islamic revolution the regime in Tehran brandishes to justify its existence. If the USA attacks the elements of the very identity of the regime in Tehran, upon which it consolidates its survival, the public in Iran will regard that attack as an existential threat.
Admittedly, there is no way to determine the extent to which the regime in Tehran feels threatened domestically. As Dr. Raz Zimmit, a researcher specializing in Iran, has written recently, it is difficult to measure the sentiments toward Soleimani among the Iranian public using an objective, scientific scale. At the same time, a clear distinction should be made between the domestic support for the regime and the attempts to attack it from the outside. The regime in Tehran may, as stated, regard the employment of kinetic resources against its symbols as an addition to the economic pressure being exerted on it for years. Viewing the issue from this angle, the elimination was a deliberate American escalation intended to overthrow the regime.
Assuming that the regime's sense of security regarding its survival has been undermined owing to the elimination of Soleimani, to what extent will this incident affect the nuclear project? The equation is simple: as the nuclear project was intended to secure the survival of the regime in Iran, the undermining of this sense of security might speed up the development of the Iranian bomb.