Supreme Leader on Nuclear Weapons & Diplomacy

On June 11, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed openness about a nuclear agreement with the West but stipulated that the “infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.” He also warned officials to be wary of promises by Western governments. “We were hurt in many places because of such misplaced trust,” he told scientists and officials involved in the nuclear program.

Khamenei’s remarks followed reports that Iranian and U.S. officials held indirect talks in Oman in May. The two sides reportedly discussed de-escalation of tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran's interventions in the Middle East, and Tehran's support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine. In the talks, the United States also reportedly threatened repercussions if Iran increased uranium enrichment to 90 percent, the purity needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy to revive the historic nuclear deal—brokered between Iran and the world’s six major powers in 2015 but abandoned by President Trump in 2018—deadlocked in August 2022 after 17 months of talks launched in April 2021.

Khamenei: “The excuse of a nuclear weapon is a lie, this is not the issue, something else is at play.”

Khamenei said that growing international concern about Iran producing a nuclear weapon was an “excuse” to hold back the Islamic Republic. “They know that advancement in the nuclear industry is actually the key to making scientific progress.” He claimed that the United States and other countries knew that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons. But he boasted that Iran’s adversaries could not stop Tehran from producing nuclear weapons if it made the political decision to do so. “And they will not be able to do so in the future,” he said.

The supreme leader also reiterated his longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons based on Islamic principles dating back to the seventh century. He claimed that the United States and other countries knew that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons. Islam forbid all weapons of mass destruction due to their indiscriminate nature. “And it doesn’t matter whether it is using atomic, chemical or any other possible type of weaponry,” Khamenei added.

Yet U.S. intelligence reported in 2007 that Tehran had a nascent weapons program that it had abandoned in 2003. The same year, Khamenei issued a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding the production of nuclear weapons. But Iran continued to develop other aspects of its nuclear program. As part of the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran agreed to limitations on its program in exchange for sanctions relief. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018. Iran started breaching the deal in 2019. Iran had surpassed all of the key nuclear restrictions but had not moved to make a bomb, according to U.S. intelligence in 2023. The following are excerpted remarks from Khamenei’s speech in June 2023. 


On Diplomacy

“The existing nuclear industry’s infrastructure must not be changed. During these years, managers, officials, and those who are active in this industry have done important work and built important infrastructure. You may want to sign agreements in some areas. That’s not a problem. Make agreements, but infrastructure must not be changed. Do not harm them. They are the fruits of other people’s endeavors.”

“Another fact is the unreliability of the other parties and our opponents with regard to their promises. So far during these many years – now those of you who have more experience in the nuclear field know what I am referring to – here have been many [unfulfilled] promises in different sectors, made by both the governments that were on the other side of the negotiations and by the agency itself. They made promises and did not fulfill those promises. Many times, there were unfulfilled promises and mistrust. Therefore, one of the achievements of this challenge of 20 years is that we realized we cannot trust their promises or their words. These are important achievements. Realize that these are important. We were hurt in many places because of such misplaced trust. It is very important for a nation and the officials of a country to know and realize who to trust and who not to trust. This is very important. We have realized this. Over these 20 years, we have come to realize who is trustworthy and trustworthy and who isn’t trustworthy.”


On nuclear weapons

“We have faced nuclear challenges for 20 years now. Why have the enemies created these challenges? Why do they keep insisting on this? Are we the only ones in the world working in the field of nuclear energy? Of course, they claim that they are afraid of nuclear weapons. They are lying. They know very well that we are not pursuing nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community has stated on numerous occasions that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Just a few months ago, two of these people admitted that there are no signs that Iran is moving toward the construction of nuclear weapons. They are right.

“Of course, it is not that we are afraid of them or that this is because of them. We believe nuclear weapons are used for mass destruction. We are against mass destruction. It is contradictory to religion, and it is contradictory to Islam. And it doesn’t matter whether it is using atomic, chemical or any other possible type of weaponry.

“In the wars that were fought during the time of the Prophet, Imam Ali, and the early days of Islam, instructions were given to be careful not to block people’s access to water. At that time, it was a common practice to block the general public’s access to water. There wasn’t chemical warfare or things of that sort. Based on our Islamic principles, we do not want to pursue such weapons. Otherwise, if it weren’t for our belief, and we had wished to pursue these, they wouldn’t have been able to stop us in the same way that they haven’t been able to stop our nuclear development until now. And they will not be able to do so in the future. If we had wanted to build nuclear weapons, we would have done so. They know this. So, this excuse about nuclear weapons is a lie. They know that advancement in the nuclear industry is actually the key to making scientific progress in many fields in the country. They don’t want that to happen.”


On the International Atomic Energy Agency 

“I strongly recommend you maintain relations with the agency. Maintain your cooperation and communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but of course, within the framework of the safeguards agreement. In other words, do not agree to more than that and do what you have to do according to the safeguards agreements. Over the past 20 years, this has always been my recommendation to the various officials that worked in this industry. However, we always emphasized working with the IAEA.

“[At the same time,] do not violate Parliament’s laws. This is my next recommendation. Parliament has passed a law. This law is in our interest, it is in the country’s interest, and it is in the interest of our nuclear industry. Some people imagine that this law is creating problems for the country. They are mistaken. It is a good law… Act according to the law, whether it is in their gaining access, which they expect rom you, or in the information that you present to them.”