analysisMiddle East

Iran’s nuclear ‘restraint’ is policy rather than technology

The U.S. is not going to attack and forestall a nuclear-armed Tehran, says Israel expert.

The inside of an uranium conversion facility just outside the city of Isfahan, about 254 miles south of Tehran, Iran, in 2005. Photo by Getty Images.
The inside of an uranium conversion facility just outside the city of Isfahan, about 254 miles south of Tehran, Iran, in 2005. Photo by Getty Images.
Israel Kasnett

Iran’s recent declaration that it is installing additional centrifuges at the Fordow nuclear facility signifies a significant step towards nuclear weaponization. Tehran’s apparent restraint in developing nuclear weapons is derived more from policy considerations than technological constraints.

On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Press Club hosted an online interview with Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a former senior official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who warned about Iran’s intentions, called on the international community to do more, and cautioned the world to “be wary” of the Islamic Republic and its leaders. 

“Iran can now enrich uranium up to 90% in quantities for several nuclear warheads within just a few weeks,” Asculai said. “It all hangs on the decision of the supreme leader.”

This is worrying, given that Iran just threatened on Saturday that an Israeli military operation against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon could lead to an “obliterating war” with all of Tehran’s proxies, adding that “all options are on the table.”

According to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, “Considering the likely case where Iran installs eight more IR-6 cascades at Fordow in the next several weeks, and noting it already has two IR-6 cascades at Fordow, breakout could occur rapidly, once the Iranian regime decides to do so.”

Two months after Iran commences breakout, “it could produce a total of 225 kg. [496 pounds] of weapon-grade uranium, enough for nine nuclear weapons,” the institute reported.

Asculai explained that while enrichment is the most difficult part of producing nuclear weapons, there are two additional steps—design and production of the nuclear explosive mechanism and then the delivery system.

Many researchers assume Iran has the capability to produce a nuclear explosive device and some estimate the Iranians could, if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei so decides, “conduct an explosive test within six months of the decision.”

No access to the weaponization program

According to Asculai, there are IAEA inspectors on the ground in Iran, “but they have very limited access. They have access to the enrichment program, but they do not have access to the weaponization program.”

“They have incriminating evidence, and the world is doing nothing about it,” he said.

“Breaking out is a matter of decision,” Asculai said. “Iran is a nuclear threshold state. They are there.”

In his view, a nuclear Tehran is now “a political problem,” not a technical problem. “Iran has all the know-how and capabilities to do what it wants.”

The United States could forestall a nuclear-armed Iran, Asculai pointed out. “Let’s say the U.S. wants to decimate the Iranian nuclear program,” he said. “It can do it.

“However, the U.S. doesn’t sound like it’s going to do it,” he added. “The United States is not going to attack and decimate the Iranian nuclear project.”

Israel and the United States agreed to reschedule a high-level meeting on the Iranian threat that was canceled after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Biden administration of withholding arms from Jerusalem, Axios reported.

The U.S.-Israel Strategic Consultative Group (SCG), which was formed during the Obama administration, has not convened since March of last year.

Israel is also reestablishing working groups in various government bodies to discuss the Iran nuclear threat, after they were frozen some 18 months ago, according to Axios.

The initiative, overseen by Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, restarts six groups in the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and in the military intelligence and cyber fields, according to the report. 

Asculai said he believes the world “can join forces and pressure Iran,” because Iran does care about its international position and “wants to be a member in good standing of the international community.” It can do something,” he said of the international community.”

Europe doing more than the U.S.

In fact, European countries appear to be doing more than the U.S. at the moment to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Asculai noted the U.S. “was very hesitant” about joining the IAEA resolution at the last board of governors meeting on June 3 in Vienna. 

The Biden administration actually tried to block European efforts to introduce a resolution against the Iranian regime.

Tehran’s decision to triple or possibly quadruple its uranium enrichment capacity at Fordow may be a response to the censure of the Islamic Republic by the IAEA board of governors, which demanded it comply with the IAEA and reinstate inspections. The effort was led by the so-called E3 of the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic committed not to install or operate those centrifuges, and not to use Fordow for enrichment purposes. 

The British ambassador to the U.N. said on Monday that London and other European parties are prepared to reinstate sanctions on Iran should it continue to advance its nuclear program.

“Given Iran’s dangerous advances which have brought it to the brink of being able to develop a weapon, this situation should be of grave concern for this council,” Ambassador Barbara Woodward told a U.N. Security Council meeting focusing on implementation of JCPOA.

Asculai added, “So, the diplomatic course could perhaps produce a beneficial result but it will take the willpower of many nations to do that.

“Many things that could have pressured Iran are not being done,” he said. “It is not a good situation now internationally.”

Asculai noted Iran’s regime may be in trouble domestically where “the people are fed up with the government,” but it “isn’t bankrupt,” and is “still powerful and does a lot of damage to the world.”

For instance, Iran is still funding its proxies—Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—and sending them arms. Asculai said Iran receives money from Russia in return for weapons.

According to the Institute for Science and International Security, this is indeed the case. “The transfer of weapons technology from Iran to Russia has developed on a large scale,” institute experts David Albright and Spencer Faragasso wrote in a report. “The Ukraine war has led Russia to seek goods from Iran, including prominently a $1.75 billion purchase of Shahed 136 kamikaze drones and their production know-how.”

Regardless of what Iran does or says, Asculai suggested that the international community should be cautious when dealing with the regime.

“Everyone says the Iranian government is rational,” he said. “I don’t know, but the rationale of the Iranian government is not the rationale of other governments.

“I would be wary of them,” Asculai warned. “Be wary of Iran.”

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