Iran: US responds to nuclear weapons programme progress
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In a development which significantly cranks up the pressure on US President Joe Biden and allies including the UK, the report, published by the Institute for Science and International Security, suggests Tehran now has the capability to produce enough fuel for a single nuclear warhead by next month. The experts reached their conclusions after studying data contained in a separate report published by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) last week.
The report, co-authored by David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, and Andrea Stricker, explains that Iran has produced a total of 200 grams of near 20 percent enriched uranium metal, first converting uranium hexafluoride enriched to 20 percent to uranium tetrafluoride and then producing uranium metal.
It adds: “Iran produced 2.42 grams of natural uranium metal during the previous reporting period.
“Despite its claims of civil use, Iran’s development of the wherewithal to make uranium metal as well as the metal itself is concerning because its production is a key step in making nuclear weapons.
“Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride in the form of two to five percent low enriched uranium (LEU), near 20 percent enriched uranium, and 60 percent enriched uranium, to produce weapon-grade uranium (WGU) for over two nuclear weapons without using any natural uranium as feedstock, a fact that reduces breakout timelines.”
Significantly, the report claims: “A worst-case breakout estimate, which is defined as the time required to produce enough WGU for one nuclear weapon, is as short as one month.
“Iran could produce a second significant quantity of WGU in less than three months after breakout commences.
“It could produce a third quantity in less than five months, where it would need to produce some of the WGU from natural uranium.”
The Biden administration has not publicly discussed the report’s findings – but federal officials privately admit the construction of a nuclear device is probably only a matter of months away.
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Nevertheless, technical challenges remain – manufacturing a warhead which could be mounted on an Iranian missile and survive the requisite re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere would likely take considerably longer.
Questioned by reporters after the report’s publication, Mr Albright, the institute’s head, stressed the importance of not being intimated by Iran, now led by hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi.
Mr Albright said: “We have to be careful not to let them scare us.”
Iran has not been this close to nuclear capability since former President Barack Obama brokered the Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action (JPOCA) agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from developing such weapons.
As part of that deal, the Iranians were forced to ship more than 97 percent of their fuel out of the country.
However, after Mr Obama’s successor Donald Trump pulling the US out of the agreement in 2018, alleging multiple violations, Iran began the process of enriching uranium once more to the point where it once again stands of the threshold of the bomb.
Questioned on the subject during a trip to Germany yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that Iran’s progress was so rapid the JPOCA deal might soon be rendered obsolete.
He told reporters: “I’m not going to put a date on it but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the old deal does not reproduce the benefits that agreement achieved.”
Mr Blinken said: “As time goes on and as Iran continues to make advances in its nuclear program, including spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, enriching more material, learning more, there is a point at which it would be very difficult to regain all of the benefits.
“We’re not at that point yet, but it’s getting closer.”
Western powers on Monday scrapped plans for a resolution criticising Iran at the UN atomic watchdog after Tehran agreed to prolong monitoring of some nuclear activities, even though the watchdog said Iran made no “promise” on another key issue.
The decision by the United States, France, Britain and Germany not to push for a resolution at this week’s meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors avoids an escalation with Iran that could have killed hopes of resuming wider talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
During a visit to Tehran this weekend by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi, Iran agreed to allow his agency overdue access to its equipment in Iran that monitors some sensitive areas of its nuclear programme. Inspectors will swap out memory cards more than two weeks after they were due to be replaced.
Mr Grossi said on Sunday that the agreement solved “the most urgent issue” between the IAEA and Iran.
He made clear on Monday, however, that on another source of concern – Iran’s failure to explain uranium traces found at several old but undeclared sites, including one describing as a carpet-cleaning factory – he had obtained no firm commitments.
Mr Grossi told a news conference: “I did not receive any promise.”
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