As the United States warns that Iran is only weeks away from developing the capability to make a nuclear weapon, Washington experts disagree on the likelihood of Iran rushing to build such a weapon and how the United States and its allies should manage this risk. .
“[Iran] is getting to the point where its escape time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is reduced to weeks,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday at a virtual event. .
The United States and Iran have been negotiating indirectly since last April to see if they can secure a mutual return to compliance with a 2015 agreement in which Tehran promised to curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized in exchange for a sanctions relief by the United States and other world powers. .
“I think that will be decided in the next few weeks, because again, given what Iran is doing, we cannot allow this to continue,” Blinken said.
Iran says its nuclear activities are for civilian use and denies seeking nuclear weapons.
The United States left the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump said it was not enough. hard on Tehran and unilaterally reimposed US sanctions. Iran retaliated a year later by launching a process of increasingly overstepping JCPOA limits on its nuclear work.
The United States and Iran decided to start indirect talks in Vienna last year, mediated by world powers, after President Joe Biden took over from Trump and pledged to join the JCPOA if Iran was tantamount to limiting its nuclear activities under the agreement.
The deal was intended to prevent Iran from producing enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency indicates that 25 kilograms of uranium-235 isotope, which accumulates when approximately 28 kilograms of uranium is enriched to 90% purity, is the amount of escape at which ” the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded”. “
Israel has long viewed a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat due to the Islamic Republic’s repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israeli officials estimated that it would take Iran two years after achieving escape capability to develop, if it wanted to, a nuclear missile that could reach Israel.
American physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told VOA Persian in a recent interview that Iran could also develop a more rudimentary nuclear weapon in a much shorter time once he will have reached an escape capacity.
“Iran could be rushing to its first nuclear explosive, by our estimate, in about three months,” Albright said.
Matthew Kroenig, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University who was previously an adviser to the US Department of Defense on nuclear deterrence policy, told VOA that Iran could use this time to build a nuclear bomb “of cannon type”.
“This is such a simple bomb design that the United States didn’t even test it before dropping one on Hiroshima in 1945,” Kroenig said.
Kroenig said Iran could deploy such a weapon by dropping it from an airplane, driving it to a target in a truck or putting it in a container on a ship that is sailing through a port. “There is a lot of chaos Iran could cause before it achieves a fully deliverable warhead on a ballistic missile,” he said.
Other analysts interviewed by VOA said it was pointless to speculate on what arms moves Iran might take after the breakout, as it does not appear to have made up its mind to reach the stage of escape, let alone go beyond.
Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, told Israel’s Walla news site in October that Iran “isn’t headed for a bomb right now.” Similarly, the American head of the CIA, William Burns, told a the wall street journal forum on Dec. 6 that he had “seen no evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader made the decision to go into arms,” according to CBS News.
Plowshares Fund president Emma Belcher, whose grantmaking organization seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, said ongoing IAEA inspections of Iran’s declared nuclear sites and Iranian leaders’ own statements indicate also a lack of intention to militarize. “So I’m not worried right now about Iran doing that,” she said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the advocacy group Arms Control Association, said Iran would also see little benefit in making a crude nuclear bomb to use for blackmail or as a terror weapon against another country.
“Iran is a state with territory to defend and is concerned with the preservation of the regime,” Kimball said. “Why would he, at great expense, give a nuclear device to his terrorist proxies? The world would know where the fissile material came from. ‘attribution,’ he added.
Even though Iran produced a considerable amount of fissile material, Belcher said the United States and its allies could use diplomacy to try to get Tehran to agree not to make it a bomb.
“You could have a deal with Iran to reduce this material so it’s no longer highly enriched, or you could ship this material somewhere else so Iran can’t use it to create a nuclear weapon,” he said. Belcher said.
Kimball said the international community could also use economic pressure, military strikes or covert action to prevent a post-breakout Iran from building a nuclear bomb. He said if Iran tried to manufacture fissile material in secret by expelling IAEA inspectors, further sabotage against Iranian nuclear sites would be “very likely”.
Iran has accused Israel of carrying out two explosions that damaged its Natanz uranium enrichment facility in July 2020 and April 2021. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.
Scott Roecker, deputy vice president of the organization Nuclear Threat Initiative which advocates for the reduction of nuclear threats to humanity, said Iran had shown an increased desire in recent weeks to reach an agreement to revive the JCPOA. . But if that doesn’t happen, he said pursuing diplomacy would still be the best way for the United States and its allies to deal with an Iran that has enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to take drastic measures in the next few weeks, if Iran got to this point, because it would still have to take further steps to achieve a real nuclear weapons capability. “, said Roecker.
But hoping that a post-breakout Iran will decide not to arm itself, and assuming that countermeasures will work if they do, is a strategy that could backfire on the United States, Kroenig and Albright.
“Once Iran gets the first weapons-grade uranium bomb, we could try to negotiate with them for a year or two. But why would Iran invest billions of dollars and endure sanctions and threats of military strikes to get a nuclear weapon a spin, then voluntarily stop in a negotiation? asked Kroenig. “If Iran has a clear path to the nuclear club, it will eventually build an arsenal like North Korea and Pakistan have done.”
If Iran built a crude nuclear bomb and used it without claiming responsibility, Kroenig said nuclear forensic scientists would examine the explosion and try to determine what triggered it, but the process could take months and lead to the identification of several countries as possible culprits. . “In this scenario, it is not clear that the United States will take decisive action, given the uncertainty about the origin of the bomb and the risk of escalation if Iran retaliates with another nuclear explosion. “, did he declare.
Albright said a post-breakout Iran could also detonate a crude nuclear device underground within months in a symbolic test of its capabilities. He said such a test would likely increase regional tensions and lead to nuclear proliferation as Iran’s Arab rivals in the Gulf want to launch nuclear weapons programmes.
“These scenarios create more urgency for us to put in place firewalls so that Iran does not cross the nuclear eruption threshold,” Albright said. “We are on the verge of failing in this effort.”