Iran’s intelligence minister raised the possibility on Tuesday that his country would be forced to seek nuclear weapons if American sanctions were not lifted, an attention-grabbing break from the country’s pledge that its atomic energy program would always be peaceful.
The remarks by the intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, were reported on state television and added new pressure on the three-week-old Biden administration to avert a new crisis with Iran.
They came against the backdrop of an escalating standoff between Iran and Mr. Biden, who has said the United States would rescind the sanctions if Iran first returned to commitments it made under the 2015 nuclear agreement. Iran has said the sanctions, imposed by President Donald J. Trump after he withdrew from the accord in 2018, must be rescinded first — and that Iran must be able to verify that they have been rescinded.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on military and security matters, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, in the 1990s proclaiming that nuclear weapons are forbidden. That is still Iran’s official position.
But Mr. Alavi said that American sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy could force a change of plans.
“Our nuclear program is a peaceful program and the supreme leader clearly said in his fatwa that producing nuclear weapons is against religious law and the Islamic Republic will not pursue it and considers it forbidden,” he said. “But let me tell you, if you corner a cat it might behave differently than a cat roaming free. If they push Iran in that direction, it would not be Iran’s fault but the fault of those who pushed Iran.”
Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran has led to increasing talk among commentators in Iran’s hard-line media that nuclear weapons should be considered as an effective deterrent against enemies.
Mr. Alavi’s remarks brought that discussion out in the open at a senior level. His voice carries some weight, Iranian analysts said, because he is one of the cabinet members appointed by the supreme leader.
Analysts of Iran’s posturing with Mr. Biden said the intelligence minister’s remarks were part of an orchestrated crescendo of threats. They include a Feb. 21 deadline, under a new Iranian law, that would bar international nuclear inspectors from visiting Iranian nuclear sites if the sanctions are not rescinded by then.
Such a move would be a significant new violation of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that Iran negotiated with major powers six years ago. Since Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement, reimposed old sanctions and added new ones, Iran has been systematically disregarding elements of the accord, including limits on its nuclear-fuel stockpile.
“I think this is part of a strategy Iran is pursuing right now to put as much pressure as possible on the Biden administration to get back to the J.C.P.O.A.,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.
“This is the first time someone in the hierarchy is making such an overt threat,” Mr. Boroujerdi said. “This guy is saying, ‘if you push us, we will go there.’”