New-generation centrifuges on display in Tehran during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day, April 10, 2021. Credit: Iranian Presidency Office/WANA.
New-generation centrifuges on display in Tehran during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day, April 10, 2021. Credit: Iranian Presidency Office/WANA.

Despite near-weapons-grade uranium, Iran faces technical barriers to the bomb

But experts are uncertain whether Israel alone can stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Iranian regime’s claim that the near-weapons-grade level of enriched uranium recently detected by U.N. inspectors was the result of a technical malfunction is “impossible to confirm without on-the-spot, continuous monitoring,” Mark Heller, a principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, tells JNS.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a quarterly report that inspectors detected particles of uranium on Jan. 22 that were enriched to 83.7% purity, just shy of the 90% necessary for nuclear bombs, at the Iranian nuclear site in Fordow.

“Ninety percent purity is needed to produce a nuclear fission reaction,” Heller said. “Getting past 90% is not a technological barrier, it’s just a matter of how long and how fast they enrich.”

Iran’s path to the bomb

Multiple sources have confirmed that the Iranians are within striking distance of achieving weapons-grade uranium.

CIA chief William Burns said in an interview on Sunday that the Iranians have “advanced very far to the point that it would only be a matter of weeks before they could enrich to 90% if they chose to cross that line.”

Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said in a statement on Tuesday that the Iranian regime could produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb in less than two weeks.

The Islamic Republic previously broke through the 60% barrier and according to the IAEA has already accumulated a stockpile of 87.5 kilograms (193 pounds) of uranium enriched to that level.

Heller said Iran would need at least 50 kg. (110 pounds) of uranium enriched past 90% to create a “real bomb.”

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at INSS and a former member of Israel’s National Security Council, said, “Iran is solidifying its position on the cusp of nuclear capability.”

Experts agree that Tehran’s move towards 90% enrichment significantly limits the regime’s ability to claim that it is not pursuing nuclear bombs.

“Once you reach this level of enrichment you can never claim that you are doing it for peaceful purposes,” Alexander Greenberg, an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), told JNS.

Heller said, “If the Iranians persist in enriching past 90%, then they are obviously intent on producing nuclear weapons. There are many reasons to enrich uranium beyond the level needed for nuclear power generation, nuclear research, medical uses, etc., but not up to 90%.”

However, Tehran still faces a long road before attaining nuclear weapons.

“They are still not there,” said Greenberg. “I believe that the thing preventing them from building the bomb right now is technical reasons. They just don’t have the technological ability.”

There are several technological hurdles that the Iranians still need to overcome beyond the enrichment of uranium, he explained.

“They need to increase the accuracy of their missiles. They are currently at 80% [accuracy] and that needs to go up at least to 95% before you have a viable nuclear carrier,” said Greenberg.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has yet to build an explosive device that is designed for a nuclear payload.

“Finally a country that wishes to have nukes must conduct a test,” Greenberg continued.

Preparations for such a test would be “too huge to hide” and it is clear to him that the Iranians are nowhere near such capabilities.

Heller added, “There’s a way to go from critical mass for one explosive device to the development of a force of deliverable weapons.”

Greenberg noted that Tehran’s new alliance with Moscow has largely ruined its relationship with most of the Western world. This isolation has removed the Islamic Republic’s need to placate Western powers and has allowed it to move forward more openly.

“They’re already condemned as active allies of Russia and already despairing of any chance of easing of sanctions,” Heller said.

In addition, the continuing anti-regime protests across Iran may have the government looking to nuclear weapons as a way to stabilize its foreign policy so that it can focus on reestablishing control at home.

Heller said that “growing domestic opposition just makes them [the regime] more paranoid about the need to deter foreign action in favor of regime change.”

Greenberg said that the regime is “currently stable, but time is working against them. The economic and social problems only accumulate over time. Getting nuclear weapons could change everything. It would be a great guarantee of stability for Iran.”

Military threat against Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held upwards of five meetings with top military brass regarding possible offensive moves against the Islamic Republic in the past few weeks. Both he and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have made a number of statements in the past few days increasing the rhetoric against Tehran, with Netanyahu saying last week that he “will do everything in his power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

However, experts are uncertain whether Israel alone can stop Iran from pursuing the bomb.

“What’s important to know is that Iran is not Iraq or Syria; it has lots of facilities which are dispersed, buried, disguised, etc., and that’s why few people believe that it’s possible for Israel, alone, to wage a campaign prolonged and effective enough to do long-term damage to Iran’s military infrastructure,” Heller said.

Because of this reality, Israeli leaders have often called on the U.S. to take a more active role against the Islamic Republic.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen last week called on the United States to “present a credible military threat against Iran.”

Netanyahu reiterated that preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons “is not merely an Israeli interest” but rather “an American interest and in the interest of the entire world.”

However, experts say that American intervention is increasingly unlikely.

“A zero-risk mentality dominates the American military; you cannot expect them to strike, or even threaten to strike, Iran,” Greenberg said. “They have shown their hand a lot of times and every time that the Iranians have tested the US in the past two years, they were shown that a military threat is off the table for the U.S.”

Heller said there is little evidence of American willingness to launch a decisive strike preemptively.

“They have too much uncertainty about the effectiveness [of a strike] and Iranian responses, and too few potential partners,” Heller said.

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