Word games: What does Lapid mean when he pushes ‘other options’ on Iran?

Vague terms, including ‘nuclear threshold’ state, are less frightening to Tehran than Israel would hope, leaving Jerusalem with a range of flawed approaches in the nuclear standoff

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gave an unprecedentedly harsh warning about Iran’s nuclear program during his visit to Washington, DC this week.

“At the center of my visit here is the concern about Iran’s race to a nuclear capability,” he said Wednesday during his trilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed. “Iran is becoming a nuclear threshold state.”

Lapid gave the same warning about Iran to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

He has used the nuclear threshold terminology in the past, but did not previously claim that Iran was actually on the verge of that milestone.

In July, Lapid reportedly told US officials that “Iran is quickly advancing toward becoming a nuclear threshold state.” In Russia in September, Lapid said “Israel will not allow Iran to become a nuclear state or even a nuclear threshold state.”

It appears that something has changed in Lapid’s assessment of where Iran’s nuclear program stands, or that he wants to at least give that impression. There is a new urgency in Lapid’s message.

The problem is that it is not at all clear what the term “nuclear threshold state” actually means, and therefore it is no easy task to determine whether Iran fits the bill.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second right, listens to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Multiple meanings

Initially used to refer to countries in the process of attaining nuclear weapons beyond the five nuclear powers recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the “nuclear threshold state” idea has developed a range of definitions.

One author defined it as a state “that could quickly operationalize its peaceful nuclear program into one capable of producing a nuclear weapon.”

Some believe the term actually has positive connotations. A 2010 Nonproliferation Review article defines a nuclear threshold state as one that has “chosen nuclear restraint despite having significant nuclear capacity.”

Japan and Brazil are cited as prime examples of threshold states since they possess the know-how but choose not to pursue a nuclear weapon.

The question is whether Lapid is correct in applying the term to Iran. A 2014 Naval Postgraduate School thesis argued that it was accurate even seven years ago, positing at the time that “Iran has the capabilities to produce weapons-grade material and could be considered a nuclear threshold state.”

A Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile, that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is carried on a trailer during a military parade in connection with Pakistan National Day celebrations, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 25, 2021 (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

One year after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — the JCPOA — was signed, researchers at the Tel Aviv University-linked Institute for National Security Studies wrote that with the agreement, “Iran succeeded in establishing its status as a legitimate nuclear threshold state.”

Lapid and other Israeli leaders focus almost exclusively on Iranian capabilities in their public statements.

This approach, shared by some nuclear scholars, is far too narrow and fails to capture the complex factors that go into state decisions on nuclear weapons.

The nuclear threshold concept “is very much multidimensional, given its simultaneous political, military, diplomatic, strategic, industrial, scientific and technical characteristics,” wrote nuclear expert Bernard Sitt in 2013. “It also refers to discourses or deterrence postures that vary from one proliferating state to another, which thus require specific interpretation, analysis, and responses to the ensuing crises.”

“If you define a threshold state as one that has enough fissile material that allows it to create a nuclear bomb, they’re already there,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies.

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi attends a live televised interview with state-run TV, at the presidency office in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

There are three main stages a country must go through in order to build a nuclear weapon: acquiring sufficient fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium); building a detonator; and crafting the delivery mechanism, such as a ballistic missile.

The fissile material stage is the only one about which the world has solid information regarding Iran. Enriching uranium is subject to international inspection, and Iran has boasted about its progress. The latter two stages are not monitored by the IAEA, leaving policy-makers to rely on estimates.

Iran could enrich enough fissile material for one bomb in one or two months, said Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, “but it will become a true threshold state only once this timeframe shrinks to near-zero.”

IDF Military Intelligence, for example, estimates that it would take Iran two years to build a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so, because of a lack of progress on the weaponization stages, which were halted in 2003 and could still be frozen.

“Iran is getting closer by practicing making enriched uranium metal,” said Ruhe, “but other than that we don’t entirely know how far along Tehran is in this process, since it keeps stonewalling investigators.”

The Natanz uranium enrichment facility buildings are pictured some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, on March 30, 2005. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

This opacity is clearly part of Iran’s strategy, allowing it to avoid international pressure and penalties.

Lapid has not yet explained how he defines a nuclear threshold state. And the ambiguity and possibility of disparate definitions make warnings about Iran reaching the nuclear threshold much less meaningful than they may initially seem.

“It’s simply a matter of interpretation what a threshold state is,” Zimmt stressed.

Talk of options

The other phrase dominating Lapid’s visit was that of “other options” — in case diplomacy fails to bring Iran back in line with the JCPOA.

“Other options are going to be on the table if diplomacy fails,” Lapid said at the joint press conference. “By saying other options, I think everyone understands, here, in Israel, in the Emirates, and in Tehran, what it is that we mean.”

Lapid added in Hebrew that his three-day trip to Washington centered around “the other options” but did not repeat that line in his English comments.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Blinken also brought up the possibility of more aggressive action: “We will continue to look at every option to deal with the challenge that is posed by Iran. We believe that diplomacy is the best way to do that, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy.”

Though the diplomats did not lay out what they meant by “other options,” there isn’t much room for interpretation here. There are really only three ways to delay – since it is virtually impossible to stop – a nuclear weapons program.

The first is economic pressure, primarily in the form of sanctions, which is the main US effort today. While sanctions have caused serious damage to Iran’s economy, they are unlikely to fundamentally change the regime’s actions. “Let’s tell the truth,” said Zimmt. “Iran has the ability to survive economic sanctions.” Tehran managed to get through Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and feels that it can manage anything Biden may throw at them.

The second means of delaying Iran’s nuclear program is through covert attacks. Some of these operations – especially the November 2020 assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh – caused meaningful delays, but most, like the 2021 attacks on the Natanz facility, only hold up progress by a few months or actually speed up Iran’s program by causing them to replace old centrifuges.

And of course, there is the military option. But the Biden administration is trying to reduce its commitment to the Middle East, not spark new conflicts, and it is highly unlikely the US will strike during Biden’s tenure.

Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. (Agencies)

Israel’s implicit threat to use military force is “inherently more credible than Washington’s,” Ruhe explained.

While the Americans can but won’t strike, Israel could conceivably attack, but it’s far from certain that it can succeed. There are subtle hints emerging that Israel doesn’t feel ready to strike.

For the past 10 months, the IDF has stated that it has been updating its “operational plans” for a military strike on Iran, a sign that its leadership recognizes that the military was not fully prepared for an attack.

A senior government official also said this summer that Bennett has been focusing on closing gaps in strike capabilities that emerged under previous governments.

With a nuclear deal looking less and less likely, the other options grow in relevance. But for now, they come across as unrealistic or ineffective, rendering the threat far less menacing toward Iran than Israeli and American leaders would desire.

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