Quickening the Iranian Nuclear Horn

Here’s how quickly Iran could build a nuclear weapon

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President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum that reinstates sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

• The Iran nuclear deal was designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, but now that President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the pact, there’s a chance it could fall apart and the Iranian regime could move toward becoming a nuclear power.

• Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hasn’t said exactly what his government plans to do in response to Trump’s decision, but warned Iran could resume enriching uranium within weeks if it wished to.

• and was perhaps only a few months away from developing the required bomb fuel.

The Iran nuclear deal was designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, but now that President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the pact, there’s a chance it could fall apart and the Iranian regime could move toward becoming a nuclear power.

There was no credible evidence Iran was violating the terms of the deal, but Trump, among others, felt it didn’t go far enough in terms of preventing Tehran from becoming a nuclear power.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hasn’t said exactly what his government plans to do in response to Trump’s decision, but warned Iran could resume enriching uranium within weeks if it wished to.

Prior to the 2015 deal, Tehran had enriched uranium to 20% purity — weapons-grade uranium is roughly 90% purity. As part of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile by 98% and limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%. It also agreed to reduce its number of centrifuges — tube-shaped machines that help enrich uranium — by two-thirds.

The deal was essentially designed to ensure it would take Iran at least 12 months to gather enough bomb fuel necessary for a nuclear weapon, but there are concerns that if the deal fully crumbles, Tehran could ramp up nuclear activities and develop one much faster.

Jon Wolfsthal, who oversaw all aspects of arms control, nonproliferation and nuclear policy on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, expressed alarm in this regard on Twitter.

He tweeted, “As of yesterday, Iran is one year from being able to build a weapon. Now, all bets are off thanks to Trump. The pace is now set in Tehran, not Washington.”

Before the deal, experts believed Iran had the technical capacity to become a nuclear power and was perhaps only three to four months away from developing the required bomb fuel.

Iran had roughly 20,000 centrifuges prior to the pact, but the agreement saw that number go down to approximately 6,000, and it was primarily only allowed to keep outdated models.

If Tehran reneges on the deal — which includes other global powers as well — now that Trump has pulled the US out if it, Iran could probably get the roughly 13,000 centrifuges it dismantled and put into storage up and running rather quickly, effectively jump-starting its nuclear program.

Still, Iran might not know how to actually build a nuclear weapon

Based on what was known about Iran’s nuclear capabilities before the deal this means it could theoretically develop bomb fuel within months — if it chooses to go this route. Some experts have suggested it would take Iran at least eight to 10 months to get to this point.

With that said, there’s also evidence Iran knows little about actually building a nuclear weapon, according to a 2015 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and there’s a debate over whether it has developed the missile technology to successfully deliver a warhead.

Hence, there are varying opinions on the length of time it would take for Iran to develop a nuke.

Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor and expert on nuclear weapons, told Business Insider it would take Iran “at least one year.”

“It would take Iran at least one year because they would have to re-constitute their full uranium centrifuge enrichment capabilities and then build the bomb,” Hecker said. “At this point, producing sufficient quantities of enriched uranium for the bomb fuel presents the greatest obstacle.”

Members of the Trump administration have also suggested Iran has no desire to race toward developing a nuclear weapon.

“Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations committee last month. “There is no indication that I’m aware of that if that deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today.”

In short, the length of time it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon depends on an array of technological and geopolitical factors. But Trump’s decision arguably gives Tehran far more wiggle room on this issue than it has had in years.

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