Has Iran laid the groundwork to develop nuclear weapons on a moment's notice?
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Hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough at its signing in July 2015, Iran’s nuclear agreement with leading members of the international community—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—has achieved some notable short-term successes, many in Iran’s favor. Most, not all, of Iran’s nuclear activities are either frozen or highly circumscribed. In exchange, Iran is reaping the benefit of receipt of billions of dollars in previously frozen assets as well as a return to international commerce where Europe and China, among others, are seeking to invigorate trade and investment with the theocratic regime. This will be a boon for Iran’s chronically mismanaged and struggling economy.

The bad news is that it is misleading to conclude that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been shuttered or that those ambitions will no longer pose a threat to the security and stability of the Middle East or beyond. This is because the agreement has finite limits, ranging from 10 years to 15 years depending on the issue. 

For the time being, Iran has incentives to abide by the agreement’s terms, beginning with its financial windfall and reintegration into the international community. None of that has lessened Iran’s fervor for supporting terrorism or the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 


Moreover, even now there are signs Iran in the long-term has no plans to abandon its nuclear program—and all that implies for the possible development of nuclear weapons. 


A recent report from the highly credible Institute for Science and International Security takes note of a statement from Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. According to the Institute report and quoting Salehi, Iran “has the capability to initiate mass production of advanced centrifuges on short notice.” Centrifuges are the machinery that enriches uranium and creates the fissile material needed to make a nuclear weapon.

While Iran may make the specious claim it has the right to do so in coming years, on practical grounds there should be no reason for Iran to devote resources to this activity if it does not intend, as it so claims, to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. Mass production of advanced centrifuges, if carried out, would give Iran a decided advantage if it wanted to shorten a rush to a nuclear weapon.

Similarly, Iran continues to develop its ballistic missile program, an element of its defense regime that was left unhindered in the nuclear negotiations except for the fact that existing United Nations sanctions on the missile program are to be lifted in about six years.

The capability to deliver nuclear weapons to targets is all important; Iran recognizes this requirement and makes no secret of its commitment to maintaining and advancing its program. At present, Iran has ballistic missiles capable of attacking targets throughout the Middle East and probably beyond. 

In addition, Iran also continues to defy repeated international requests to come clean on suspect activities at the Parchin military facility where suspicions for years have been high that Iran carried out high explosives testing that can only be useful in developing a nuclear weapon.

Much of the international community would be pleased to see these and related questions not resurface but they are inconvenient truths that if left unaddressed may well lead to a future crisis.

The mechanism to take up these issues is the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. Most nations around the globe are IAEA members and they merit a clear understanding of Iran’s activities, in no small measure to convince them that the international community can deal with Iran successfully and that Iranian actions can be monitored credibly.

That conclusion cannot be reached with credibility until much more is known about the pace and scope of Iran’s nuclear and missile activities. Until those questions are resolved it is fair to conclude that Iran’s actions since the signing of the JCPOA are troubling and raise new suspicions.

Jack Caravelli served on the White House National Security Council staff from 1999-2000. Sebastian Maier is an associate with the London-based corporate intelligence firm GMTL.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.