Barely any Iran watcher has a straight answer to the question: is the nuclear deal practically dead in a ditch? The conundrum has become even knottier since the October 7 Hamas attack and the ensuing Israeli retaliation. Iran’s threats against Israel have so far remained shallow while its ace proxy, Hezbollah, makes cautious and calculated moves. Washington is following Tel Aviv’s suit by launching attacks on Iran-linked ammunition depots and mercenary bases in eastern Syria. If Tehran’s supply chain for its militias remains largely disrupted, the retaliatory strikes on US military assets in Iraq, Syria and in the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean will become more commonplace, albeit partially successful. The backdoor nuclear talks will not be resuming amid such intense wrangling. The blood being spilled during the latest phase of the Israel-Palestinian conflict will feed Iran’s narrative of “resistance” for years to come, which will translate into Tehran becoming militarily stronger to safeguard its sovereignty and manifest force on behalf of the oppressed. With sophisticated medium-range ballistic missiles in its arsenal, all it needs is nuclear deterrence.
The Nuclear Calculus
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remains partially locked out from monitoring and inspecting some of Iran’s key facilities. The IAEA’s September report clearly presents its estimates about Iran’s shortened breakout time and the capability to pack six nuclear bombs if it chooses to do so. Tehran continues to renege on its interim agreements with the IAEA of reconnecting the severed facilities with the agency’s monitoring equipment. The access to inspectors also remains denied as do replies to some outstanding and tough questions.
In its September report, the nuclear watchdog admitted that due to Iran’s refusal to resolve outstanding safeguards violations, its ability to monitor Iran’s complex and growing nuclear program continues to be significantly reduced. Without its online cameras and inspectors’ visits, the agency cannot detect the diversion of nuclear materials, equipment and other capabilities to undeclared facilities. The UN watchdog estimates that Iran’s 60% HEU stash weighs 122 kilograms. The IAEA reported that Tehran retains the ability, using 40 kilograms of 60% HEU and three or four advanced centrifuge cascades, “to break out and produce enough weapon-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 12 days.” Currently, Iran needs only one-third of its existing stock of 60% enriched uranium but “this breakout could be difficult for the IAEA to detect promptly if Iran delayed inspectors’ access.”
The IAEA noted that Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU) at 90% purity for an additional five nuclear weapons within the first month of a breakout, bringing the total to enough WGU for six nuclear weapons as of May 2023.
Iran could produce enough WGU for six nuclear weapons in one month, eight in two months, nine in three months, and ten in four months. Iran’s stockpile of 60% HEU was 121.6 kilograms or 179.9 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride mass (hex mass) as of August 19. As of this reporting period, Iran was not yet using its fully installed enrichment capacity at the Fordow site.
The situation is dire as “for more than two and a half years Iran has not provided updated declarations and the Agency has not been able to conduct any complementary access under the Additional Protocol to any sites and locations in Iran.”
Tehran has the technological capability to produce highly enriched U-235 (HEU) to levels above 90% while it possesses heavy water reactors to generate Plutonium (which does not occur naturally). It is a documented fact that Iran conducted advanced, intensive research on fabricating the implosion-type nuclear bomb and carried out testing of high explosives until 2003. Over the years, it lost some of its key scientists to targeted killings, however, a repository of knowledge exists while a horde of junior scientists have replaced their peers. The process of fabricating and assembling a bomb with weapon-grade HEU while being a signatory to the NPT might be currently underway at known civilian or unknown military facilities. Iran has Russia’s public support in this pursuit. The North Korea template is at play but in this case, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA is also to blame.
The Cost-benefit Equation
Prima facie, Iran has a plausible cover story for its relentless pursuit of nuclear technology. In July, the AEOIannounced that it is looking to increase its nuclear power generation capacity to 20 GWe. The country’s first nuclear power plant, Bushehr, is claimed to have generated more than 60 billion kilowatt-hours. The AEOI’s Mohammad Eslami stated that the construction work has started at the Karun nuclear power plant in Khuzestan, and the completion of the second and third units at Bushehr is “on the agenda.” With the IAEA monitoring and inspection in place and observance of its additional protocol commitments, Iran could have raised no eyebrows. Otherwise, it is logical to assume that such investments are meant to not only attain expertise in building a nuclear supply chain and training manpower but also to prepare for the day after quitting the NPT. It is worth mentioning here that the JCPOA restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are going to elapse in October 2025 anyway.
Supposing that tensions between Iran and the United States continue to flare up further and France, Germany and/or the UK invoke the snapback sanctions, Tehran will make good on its threat of quitting the NPT and take the nuclearization route. If the E-3 tries a different, less adverse approach, Iran will be free to enrich itself like other NPT signatories as it wants after exactly two years. Meanwhile, it stockpiles HEU in higher quantities and in a clandestine manner.
At present, it suits Tehran to preserve the status of the nuclear deal while stockpiling HEU and refining its delivery systems. The feared unknown facilities can fabricate a nuclear payload as the West remains indecisive. An inflamed Levant today is Iran’s insurance policy to quietly fast-track its pursuit of nuclear weapons instead of choosing to directly join the war.