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Iran’s March toward the Nuke

March 11, 2022

by: Kate Norman, BFP Staff Writer

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Everything was supposed to be fine in 2015, when the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In exchange for sanctions relief for the financially crippled regime in Tehran, the 159-page document detailed restrictions to curb and monitor Iran’s nuclear development program.

However, the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who criticized the deal as flawed and reimposed sanctions against Iran. A year later, Tehran began openly and progressively defying its restrictions under the deal, beginning with stockpiling its uranium past the limit as well as enriching uranium to a much higher purity than allowed.

As talks in Vienna to revive the nuclear deal appear to be petering out at the time of writing, Iran continues its nuclear development. The Biden administration initially seemed keen to revive the JCPOA, but as the clock ticks and centrifuges continue spinning in Iran, more and more American and European officials are posturing that the talks are dragging on so slowly—while Iran continues upping the ante on its nuclear development—that soon, a revived nuclear deal might be a moot point.

How Close is Iran to Nuclear Breakout?

In January, the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) published a report warning that Iran was just weeks away from achieving a nuclear bomb. But here we are, and Tehran has yet to produce its impending boom. It seems like every few months, there is another report that Iran is a mere few months, or even weeks, away from a nuclear weapon. How close then is the Islamic regime to achieving nuclear breakout?

The reports vary, and it’s difficult to say, as the answer depends on several factors. Yes, Iran is using more centrifuges than allowed at more operational nuclear plants than allowed to enrich more uranium than allowed at a higher purity than allowed. Though highly enriched uranium is a key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, more ingredients are needed to produce a working nuke. First, Iran has to manufacture enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb—though experts estimate the regime could clear that hurdle shortly. However, Iran also has to build a working nuclear warhead as well as a ballistic missile that can carry the payload in order to reach full nuclear-state status.

Experts say Iran received a leg up from Pakistan. Islamabad gifted Tehran with designs for a working nuclear weapon in the 1990s. Iran also has an advanced ballistic missile program, which includes the long-distance Ghadr-110 missile that could reach Tel Aviv, Foreign Policy reported in January. And with Iran barring international inspectors from visiting some of its nuclear development sites, it’s hard to say where Tehran is in the process of building a working bomb.

“The real core truth is that simply no one, including those with access to more detailed intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, can be certain on any of these timelines, especially as we do not have a solid idea of what research and development Iran has been able to historically and currently work on,” Sahil Shah of the European Leadership Network told Foreign Policy in January. Russian nuclear negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov took it a step further when he told Foreign Policy that a significant stockpile of weapons-grade uranium “cannot be used without warheads, and the Iranians do not have warheads and will not get the relevant technologies for a long time.”

Science

To understand how close Iran is to weapons-grade uranium, it’s important to understand the process. Natural uranium, which has a purity of 0.7%, is fed into centrifuges, machines that spin at high speeds (between 60,000–100,000 revolutions per minute), causing the lighter enriched uranium to rise to the top, while the heavier depleted gas sinks. In order to achieve nuclear capability, uranium must be enriched to 90% purity. The process of enriching uranium to a higher purity is relatively simple, though time-consuming.

Simon Henderson of the Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute and Olli Heinonen, former director-general of the department of safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), wrote an in-depth glossary on nuclear Iran in 2015. According to their report, uranium hexafluoride is fed into 12 cascades of centrifuges, which enriches the uranium to a purity of 3.5%. The initial process of enriching uranium to 3.5% (or 3.67%, as allowed under the JCPOA) purifies the uranium from the majority of excess atoms, Foreign Policy reported, after which enriching to higher purities becomes much easier. Next, the 3.5% uranium is fed through eight cascades to reach 20% purity. Then it is fed through another four cascades to reach 60%. Finally, the uranium is fed through another two cascades to achieve 90% purity—the quality necessary for a nuclear weapon.

Crossing the Line

In November 2021—just before the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna—Iran announced it had achieved 60% enriched uranium—meaning the Islamic regime is just one technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Under the JCPOA, Iran was not supposed to enrich higher than 3.67% purity. And the regime was supposed to have no more than 300 kilograms (661 lbs.) of that low-enriched uranium stockpiled. But as of November 2021, Iran has stockpiled 25 kilograms (55 lbs.) of 60% enriched uranium as well as 210 kilograms (463 lbs.) of 20%. The JCPOA also required Iran to convert or disable some of its nuclear sites and cap its working centrifuges at 6,104 and dismantle or store the rest. Iran officially has 6,000 centrifuges as of November 2021, according to the United States Institute of Peace. But how many more unofficial centrifuges continue to spin, driving the regime closer and closer to weapons-grade uranium?

Israel and now the United States have been hinting at “other options” aside from the nuclear talks and diplomacy to hamper Iran’s nuclear progress. Regardless of how long until Iran’s nuclear breakout time and what research and technological hurdles the regime has yet to clear, the clock is ticking, and time is running out until tick, tick, boom.

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