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May 29, 2024

How close is Iran in acquiring a Nuclear Weapon

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By: Aasi Ansari, Research Analyst, GSDN

Iranian missile: source Internet

Introduction

Since highly enriched Uranium was discovered, the authorities of Iran and the UN watchdog have been discussing the nuclear safeguard. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection report on January 22, 2023, confirmed that enriched uranium up to 83.7% had been found at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), located in the south of Tehran (capital of Iran) – controlled by ‘Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’ (AEOI). This Report has put Iran under the suspicion of many nations for trying to make nuclear weapon grade material to potentially develop Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD).

According to the 2015 nuclear deal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was limited to enriching uranium up to 3.67% for 15 years and allowing the IAEA to inspect the nuclear facilities. According to the IAEA, 3.67% enriched uranium is sufficient for peaceful nuclear energy use; anything above that could be considered as a threat. Although the weaponization of uranium material can only be done at 90% or higher uranium enrichment, 83.7% is very close to it.

Uranium Stockpile in Iran

Since February 2021, Iran has restricted the IAEA’s complete ability to monitor and inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran has also been producing 60% enriched uranium since 2021. IAEA estimates the Iranian nuclear stockpile is more than 18 times larger than expectation. Though experts believe Iran has no use for 60% pure uranium. In January 2023, Grossi warned that Iran now has enough uranium to produce nuclear bombs if it chooses, because Iran’s Stockpile of U-235 at 60% purity has reached 70Kg and 20% purity has reached 1000kg.

The IAEA’s inspection report of February 2023, stated that Iran has 434.7 kg of 20% enriched uranium, which is 48 kg more than the 386.4 kg mentioned in the November 2022 report. Similarly, Iran has 87.5 kg of uranium at 60% purity, which is 25 kg more than the 62.3 kg mentioned in the previous report. The IAEA also estimated an increase of around 87 kg in Iran’s total uranium stockpile, making it 3760.8 kg as of February 12, 2023.

According to the IAEA, 42 kg of uranium of 60% purity is the approximate amount needed to possibly make a nuclear explosive device. Although experts believe, in practical, some material is wasted during enrichment; therefore, more than 55 kg of the same purity level will be needed. Currently, Iran has enough Uranium stockpile to make several Nuclear bombs. According to March 31 IAEA report, Iran has stockpiled 114Kg of 60% pure Uranium and if the enrichment reaches to 90%, it is sufficient to develop three nuclear bombs.

In 2023, between June to November Iran slowed down the average enrichment to 3 kg per month, but at the end it increased to 9 kg per month. After November 2023, Iran installed 6 new advanced centrifuge cascades and have the total of almost 7400 advanced centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow facilities, resulting the increase of average increase of enrichment. As of February 2024, Iran continues to enrich nuclear material approximately 7 kg per month up to 60% purity. As of March 2024, Iran has the total stockpile of 5525.5 kg including 712.2 kg of 20% purity, 2396.8 kg of 5% purity, 1934 kg of 2% purity, 121.5 kg of 60% purity and 361 kg of unidentified enrichment level of UF6 in chemical form.

Global Impact of Enriched Uranium discovery in Iran

Enriched Uranium discovery in Iran has raised concern not only for the IAEA but all over the world that Iran might use that material for the production of a nuclear bomb. For instance, European authorities have said that it would force them to break the 2015 nuclear agreement. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that “There is no plausible civilian justification for such a high enrichment level”. Similarly, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said there are two options to deal with Iran: either reimposing the UN ‘snapback’ sanctions that enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal or attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities with military force. Although, IAEA says military attack on nuclear facilities is illegal.  

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran to violate ‘Security Council Resolution-2231’ last year when Iran supplied drones to Russia during the Russia-Ukraine conflict even though Iran knows that Russia might use the Drones to target the Nuclear Facilities. The US and Iran were trying to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, but because of the indirect negotiations, it broke in September 2022, although Biden says the US is ready to make a deal if Iran is willing to comply. This 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal has been wavering since Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018.

CIA director Bill Burns stated that US intelligence has found no evidence against Iran’s uranium weaponization. He also stated that Iran might not have yet made any decision for the weaponization, but their enrichment program has advanced enough that if Iran chooses to make a weapon out of the enriched uranium, it will be ‘the matter of weeks‘. Burns also showed concern that Iran was now nearing to become a nuclear state since they have also been advancing their missile systems by stating that “What we also see are signs that…Russia is proposing to help the Iranians on their missile program and also at least considering the possibility of providing fighter aircraft to Iran as well”. Saudi Arabia has shown signs of obtaining the nuclear weapon if Iran ever successfully detonates one.

The US defence authority Colin Kahl stated that with this advanced technology, Iran might make one nuclear bomb’s worth of fissile material in just 12 days instead of 12 months. Though Iran will take more than one year to restarting a complete weaponization program which was stopped in 2003, but with Russia’s help it could be sooner than expected. Iran is the closest to test a nuclear weapon for the first time. In early 2000s, Iran was developing the ‘Project Midan’ to identify the location for the nuclear testing. Iran also possess the nuclear weapon design and have the ballistic missiles.

Other than that, there are few EU sanctions including missile, nuclear and other weapon, that has expired in October 18, 2023. On which Iran said it will be illegal for the EU to maintain sanctions on Iran. Re-establishing 2015 JCPOA deal and limiting Iranian stockpiling at this point will not stop the Uranium weaponization in Iran, because Iran has enough material to develop two Nuclear bomb. Thought one nuclear bomb is not enough to deter Iran from nuclear threat. Grossi said that there will be instability if the IAEA is unable to tell world that the nuclear program of Iran is completely peaceful.

Response from Iranian Authority

In defence, Iran says that the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) was enriching uranium up to 60% purity, but the traces of an extremely high enrichment might be an ‘unintended fluctuation’. The traces of 83.7% enriched uranium were found while inspecting the two interconnected cascades of advanced centrifuge machine used to enrich uranium up to 60% at Fordow facility. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) authority Behrouz Kamalvandi says that this fluctuation might be a momentary side effect of trying to achieve 60% purity or while replacing the feed cylinder in November 2022. Iran nuclear authority Mohammad Eslami stated that the IAEA’s inspector had made a mistake and the report is ‘incorrect’. Mohammad Eslami also stated that the discovered particles cannot even be seen with a microscope, and the volume was also small. On June 11, 2023, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that Iran is not trying to make a nuclear bomb by stating if ‘we wanted to develop a nuclear weapon, we would have done so and the west would not have been able to stop’.

While IAEA Director General Grossi visit to Iran in February 2023, he mentioned an improvement in the relation between the IAEA and AEOI since Iran was ready to cooperate with them. The IAEA chided Iranian authorities that they made a change in those cascades without informing since these particles were discovered after the inspection. The Iran and the IAEA came to an agreement in April 2023, to reinstalling the monitoring equipment to regain access to information, people, and places to ensure nuclear safeguards, which was limited by Iran since February 2021. But the gap of three years has made monitoring difficult for the IAEA to make sure that all the nuclear material is under the safeguards.

However, the scenario changed quickly. In June 2023, Supreme leader of Iran wanted a new nuclear deal with some changes, which will help Iran to maintain its nuclear threats. Iran has shown sign of compliance by slowing down the Uranium enrichment production. But the West was sceptical about it. On September 16, 2023, the Director General IAEA, stated that Iran has withdrawn the safeguard agreement from inspectors which were assigned to verify activities of the Iranian facilities. This step of Iran has further deteriorated the hope of restoring the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.

Recently, Iran has diluted some of their enriched nuclear material. The rate of dilution has been more than the production of new enriched material, due to which the stockpile of 60% enrichment purity has fallen slightly, from 128.3 kg in October 2023 to 121.5 kg in March 2024, a total reduction of 6.8 kg.  As of now, Iran has enough enriched weapon grade nuclear material for 2 nuclear weapons. The US expressed that the Iran should ‘downblend’ all of its near weapon grade material and not just some of it.

It is not cleared why Iran down blending the enriched material at the same time also enriching new material, which doesn’t have any civil use. Iran says they have all rights for enriching the nuclear material up to high level of purity, all while denying the intentions to make a nuclear weapon. In January 2024, director general of IAEA sated that Iran is ‘very close’ to making the nuclear weapon. At the rate they are progressing it may only take few weeks to make the weapon of mass destruction.

Conclusion

Although, Iranian authority claimed to enrich uranium unintentionally, they changed the cascade in Fordow fuel enrichment facility without informing the IAEA and have been enriching nuclear material up to 60%. Iran has no civilian use for even 60%, let alone 83.4% purity. Simultaneously, they are trying to improve missile technology with the help of Russia, all while the IAEA monitoring system is limited. While Russia is trying to help, EU missile sanctions are also about to expire in October 2023. This will give Iran freedom over EU monitoring.

While US is distracted dealing with Ukraine and Israel, and IAEA’s attention also divided to the Ukraine’s power plants safety, Iran may speed up its nuclear program. Despite the repercussions, it seems very likely for Iran to develop nuclear weapon and become the Nuclear armed nation. Right now, Iran has enough weapon grade material to develop several nuclear bombs and they might potentially be closing to test the first nuclear weapon. If Iran is really not trying to develop the nuclear weapon, then Iran needs to cooperate by giving full control of its nuclear fuel cycle program to IAEA for better safeguards of nuclear material and to ensure that the nuclear power is only used for peaceful purpose.

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