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How close is Iran to getting a nuclear weapon?

Updated: May 10

by Carol Simonetti

1. The path towards the JCPOA

Iranian nuclear ambitions were rooted in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, in which chemical weapons were deeply used, and the conflict was catastrophic for both nations. Following reports of an Iraqi clandestine nuclear program, the Iranian leadership decided that a nuclear deterrent would be critical for the country’s survival. However, the first approach to nuclear technology began in the 1950s, thanks to the US Atoms for Peace program. In 1970 Iran ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), limiting its program to peaceful use, and opening the doors to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Western cooperation ceased; however, the Islamic Republic continued its nuclear program with the assistance of other states such as Russia, China, and Pakistan. In 2003 an IAEA report concluded that Iran had failed to meet its obligations and, to avoid being referred by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the country entered into diplomatic negotiations with the EU-3[1] and announced a temporary suspension of the uranium enrichment program and the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol. The EU-3, in return, agreed to recognize Iran’s nuclear rights and discuss ways it could access modern technology while providing guarantees.

With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran started to resume the enrichment, and its non-compliance with NPT obligations led to six UNSC Resolutions[2] that resulted in bans on the transfer of nuclear and missile technology, a complete arms embargo, and the freezing of the assets of certain Iranian people and entities. Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1[3] began in 2006 to ensure that Iran would not develop its nuclear weapons and secure Iran’s right to enrich nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes under the third pillar of the NPT. While the involved countries were working on a long-term agreement, in November 2013, the Plan of Action was signed in Geneva between the Middle Eastern country and the P5+1, allowing the short-term freezing of parts of the Iranian nuclear program in return for economic sanctions’ reduction. Two years later, this complex negotiation process led to Resolution 2231, which endorsed the agreement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) requiring the ban on transferring, importing, and exporting arms, sensitive nuclear material, equipment, and missiles for a specified duration.

2. What is the Iranian nuclear deal and how does it work

The JCPOA is an agreement reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015, between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the group of P5+1. The Iranian government agreed to redesign, convert, and reduce its nuclear facilities and accept the Additional Protocol on a temporary and voluntary basis in order to obtain the lift of all nuclear-related economic sanctions, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets. In particular, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was reduced by 97% over 15 years, from 10,000 kg to 300 kg, thus not sufficient to cover the research, development, and testing phases of a nuclear weapon. Iran was permitted to have its uranium up to 3.67% purity, enough for peaceful and civil use as to build a nuclear bomb 90% is needed. Moreover, the country could retain no more than 6,104 out of almost 20,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges (irreversibly modified). The government accepted that there would not have been enrichment facilities other than Natanz. The Fordow facility, with its 1,044 centrifuges, would be converted into a nuclear research center and would produce stable radioisotopes, which are critically useful in medicine, agriculture, industry, and science. At the same time, the plutonium plant at Arak would be redesigned and modernized into a “Heavy Water Research Reactor” so that it could no longer create weapons-grade plutonium, and the spent fuel would be exported to the international market. Iran agreed to unlimited and free-access inspections by the IAEA on all its nuclear sites, including uranium mines and mills and centrifuges factories. According to experts, as a result of the above, the breakout time[4] would increase from two/three months to one year.

Pic.2: Iranian nuclear deal talks in Vienna, July 2015.

3. Worst case scenario: build a nuclear weapon in Iran

A nuclear weapon uses a fissile material to cause a nuclear chain reaction. The most commonly used materials have been uranium 235 (U-235) and plutonium 239 (Pu-239). Plutonium is almost non-existent; therefore, either uranium must be enriched, or plutonium must be produced to make a weapon. Uranium enrichment is a dual-use technology[5], used for civilian and military purposes.

Iran always claimed that its nuclear ambitions were meant for peaceful purposes, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme spiritual leader, has consistently reiterated, even issuing a fatwa[6], that nuclear weapons are considered haram (religiously forbidden).

Historically, until its nuclear program began, Iran had repeatedly supported the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. In 1974, as concerns in the region grew over Israel’s nuclear weapon program, Iran formally proposed this concept in a joint resolution at the UN General Assembly. The government would have little to gain by developing a large arsenal of nuclear weapons as neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan would immediately pursue their nuclear program in response. Israel strongly opposed the deal, and some Israeli officials publicly affirmed that the program represented an existential threat to their country[7].

Before the sanctions related to nuclear, the US imposed other stringent sanctions on Iran. According to the US Department of State, the country continues its terrorist-related activity, supporting various terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. Based on this, there is a concern in the US that if Iran would be able to create its nuclear arsenal, it could hand it over to terrorists’ hands. However, currently, it could be challenging for Iran to build a nuclear weapon as it needs to rebuild a significant portion of its infrastructure.

4. Diplomatic conflicts

In 2018, Donald Trump unilaterally announced the exit from the JCPOA and relaunched the economic sanctions against the Middle Eastern country, with a view to induce Iran to withdraw from Syria where, according to the US government, the Pasdaran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, is providing military and logistical support to the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah and, in the context of the Yemeni civil war, is assisting the Yemeni opposition. The other signatory countries strongly criticized this US move because Iran had never violated the nuclear agreement, as confirmed by the IAEA. In response, Iran halted sales of excess enriched uranium and heavy water, announcing to resume the enrichment even up to 20%, if other parties failed to allow the country to take the deal’s economic advantage.

With Biden’s election in 2020, the US declared his intention to re-join the deal. Following the murder of general Soleimani by the hands of a US drone at the Baghdad International Airport, Iran announced it would no longer respect the agreement even though it would continue coordinating with the IAEA. To make things worse, the Natanz enrichment plant was damaged, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear program’s director, was killed in an ambush near Tehran. Iranian authorities denounced Mossad’s involvement in both cases.

After suspending the negotiations in Vienna due to the election of the new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, talks have resumed with the arrival of 2022. Iran asked for credible guarantees that a future US president would no longer unilaterally exit the agreement. Another sticking point is the request to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations. During the former Trump administration, Washington’s campaign has unintentionally pushed the Middle Eastern country into the arms of a key strategic rival: China. In fact, Tehran and Beijing have signed a 25-year agreement that appears to offer the Islamic Republic more stability and potential for economic progress than the West can provide. Meanwhile, the negotiations in Vienna continue. Will an agreement be reached on the deal?

5. Conclusions

Assuming that Iran will find a way to build its atomic bomb, it should first become a true nuclear power with an effective program, thus have several nuclear weapons of varying strength, technically reliable and accurate carriers, and should be able to respond to an opponent’s nuclear attack with a counterattack.

As for the Middle East, in the case of a nuclear Iran, the balance of power would remain unchanged, however, there would only be more nations with nuclear capabilities and, strategically speaking, this would lead to the deterioration of the situation in the whole region. There is no doubt that exists a difference between a state that possesses nuclear capabilities and a state that does not, even when it comes to its non-nuclear-related activities. Furthermore, as noted above, it might encourage other countries in the region to develop their nuclear capabilities, and this could be a disaster. A hypothetical nuclear Tehran would face the issue of whether a balance based on deterrence with Israel is possible. However, Israel would hardly allow the country to become a nuclear power.

The Islamic Republic suffers from numerous internal and external strategic vulnerabilities, and its economy suffered years of recession, currency depreciation, and inflation, largely due to the energy and terrorism-related sanctions. Faced with an economically exhausted country, Iran was forced to sit down at the negotiating table.

On the political scene, a very important role is played by propaganda, which is difficult to identify when well structured. The country probably never wanted to build a working nuclear bomb; however, it has potentially included this tactical move into a broader strategic plan aimed at intimidating during negotiations, intending to leverage the threats to obtain further concessions from the West and the reduction of existing sanctions.

The revival of the JCPOA became a priority as the situation in Ukraine affected global energy prices and Iran could become a valuable supplier of energy to Europe as well as a fertile market for investments. And then, we would start writing another chapter..


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[1] France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. [2] Resolution 1696 (2006); Resolution 737 (2006); Resolution 1747 (2007); Resolution 1803 (2008); Resolution 1835 (2008); Resolution 1929 (2010). [3] The UNSC permanent members and the EU. [4] Time needed to build a nuclear weapon.

[5] In fact, enrichment is not prohibited under the NPT. [6] In the Islamic religion, it is a legal pronouncement issued by a qualified jurist. [7] It should be recalled that Israel is the only country in the Middle East possessing nuclear weapons and that, to date, has not joined yet the NPT.


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