The Iranian Nuclear Horn: Daniel 8

Without a Nuclear Deal, How Close Is Iran to a Bomb?

The agreement world powers struck with Iran in 2015 was designed to slow the country’s nuclear program to the extent that, had it decided to ditch the accord altogether, it would have needed a year to produce enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear weapon. That so-called breakout time had been estimated at a few months before the deal went into effect. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the accord in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, Iran has gradually accelerated its own violations of the agreement. Now, it’s thought to need only weeks to produce a bomb’s worth of the necessary enriched uranium. Iran would still have to master the process of weaponizing the fuel before it would have an operable nuclear device that could hit a remote target.

1. How has Iran gotten closer to having the makings of a bomb?

Under the 2015 accord, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed because of suspicions around its nuclear program, Iran agreed that for 15 years it would not enrich uranium beyond 3.7% — ­the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235 needed for nuclear power plants. Iran also pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds), or about 3% of the amount it held before the deal was struck. But starting a year after the U.S. left the accord and reimposed sanctions that have denied Iran the economic benefits the deal promised, it began to ramp its program back up. Iran has accumulated enough enriched uranium to construct several bombs should its leaders choose to purify the heavy metal to the 90% level typically used in weapons. Moreover, it has not only returned to enriching to 20% but has for the first time gone to 60%, a level of purity the International Atomic Energy Agency says is technically indistinguishable from weapons-grade fuel. International inspectors reported that as of Nov. 6, Iran had stockpiled about 2,180 kilograms of uranium enriched from 2% to 5%, 114 kilograms of the material enriched to 20% purity, and 18 kilograms enriched to 60%.

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2. Why is enrichment so important?

Obtaining the material necessary to induce atomic fission is the most difficult step in the process of making nuclear power or bombs. Countries need to develop an industrial infrastructure to produce uranium-235 isotopes, which comprise less than 1% of matter in uranium ore but are key to sustaining a fission chain reaction. Thousands of centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds are used to separate the material. The IAEA keeps track of gram-level changes in uranium inventories worldwide to ensure the material isn’t being diverted for weapons. Iran has always maintained it was pursuing nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons, but world powers have doubted that claim.

3. What else is needed for a nuclear bomb capacity?

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In addition to the fissile material, there’s the bomb and the means of delivering it. Iran likely already has the technical knowhow to produce a simple gun-assembly implosion device such as the one the U.S. dropped over Hiroshima in 1945. An Iranian pilot would have to survive an incursion into enemy territory to dispatch it, or conceivably such a device could be delivered inside a container packed aboard a ship. In order to strike a remote target, Iran would still need to design and build a device that was miniaturized sufficiently to ride atop a missile and could survive re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Estimates for how long it might need for this task range from four months to two years. Iran already has ballistic missiles to deliver such a device. It’s most powerful missile has an estimated range of as much as 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles), putting all of Europe within reach.

4. Can the nuclear deal be revived?

Talks began in Vienna to revive it after Trump was replaced as U.S. president in 2020 by Joe Biden, who said the U.S. would return to the deal and lift sanctions if Iran returned to compliance with its obligations. As of mid-2021, negotiators had made substantial progress and were close to re-instituting the safeguards needed to ensure Iran couldn’t construct a weapon. However, the talks stalled after the inauguration in August of hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi as the new president of Iran. European and U.S. diplomats involved in the talks after Raisi came to power say Iran backslid from almost all the compromises struck during earlier negotiations.

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5. What happens if the agreement is revived?

To return to compliance with the deal’s limits, Iran would have to dramatically reduce uranium stockpiles and sideline much of its enrichment technology. International inspectors would again have full access to places where nuclear material is produced, an important consideration as monitors continue parsing information about the country’s alleged historical weapons-related activities. Iran would win reprieve from sanctions that hamstrung its exports of oil and other economic activities. While some of the nuclear limitations in the deal begin to expire in 2025, diplomats expect follow-on talks to take place that would focus on regional security and Iran’s production of ballistic missiles.

6. What happens if there’s no deal?

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After entering the original deal in 2015, then-President Barack Obama said the alternative might have been a military conflict with major disruptions to the global economy. While the U.S. has pledge to reinvigorate enforcement of sanctions, Israeli officials have repeatedly implied that their military will strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if it reaches the brink of weapons capability. An alignment taking shape between China, Russia and Iran could raise the stakes on armed intervention by potentially opening new fronts for conflict.

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