Have we already failed to ensure that Iran ‘never gets a nuclear weapon’?

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is shown in a June 24, 2021, photo.

What is a nuclear weapon? The answer is both technical and political — all the more so because, on Wednesday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan met the visiting Israeli Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and “affirmed the president’s commitment to ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.” 

The term “nuclear weapon” is usually used to describe atomic bombs and the much more powerful hydrogen bombs. Strictly speaking, both the first U.S. atomic bomb and the first hydrogen bomb were not capable of being delivered on a target so are often labeled as being “devices.” So, is there an agreed definition of “nuclear weapon” between the U.S. and Israel, or was Sullivan being ambiguous? Would Iran be allowed to have capability, or even a device or two? 

To be cynical, Iran’s nuclear weapons program (few seriously judge that Tehran doesn’t have one) is the slowest in world history. The transfer of centrifuge enrichment technology from Pakistan dates to at least the mid-1990s, more than 25 years ago. By contrast, Pakistan started its pursuit of enriched uranium needed for an atomic bomb in 1976, and probably achieved a workable design by 1983, having received blueprints and two bomb’s worth of high enriched uranium from China a couple of years earlier in the most egregious act of proliferation so far. But Pakistan did not carry out an actual test explosion until 1998 — a 22-year time span. To my mind, the game-changer is a crude but successful nuclear test explosion in some remote corner of the Iranian desert.

Part of the delay has been due to the assumed efforts of the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency, which last year is credited with blowing up the centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s main Natanz facility, and earlier this summer apparently caused a power failure at Natanz, which had a catastrophic effect on hundreds of spinning centrifuges. An incident this week at a supposed centrifuge part assembly plant outside Tehran is also being credited to Israel.

But there also has been more than the occasional smokescreen by Iran. The controversial 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Report on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities asserted that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and as of mid-2007 had not restarted it. But in its November 2011 safeguards report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported: “There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that was a delaying tactic rather than a diplomatic solution, prompted Iran to break its commitments and bring into operation more efficient centrifuges, and to build up its stockpiles of semi-enriched uranium. Tehran’s recent announcement that it was enriching to 60 percent of the isotope uranium-235, the actual explosive material, was a shocker.  Most of the hard work of enrichment needed to achieve the magic figure of 90 percent has been done at that point.

So, one perhaps should consider the possibility — even the probability — that the U.S.-led efforts to stop Iran from becoming a quasi-nuclear power have failed. Israel’s definition of that status would appear to be the ability of Tehran to enrich to 90 percent. The U.S. view instead might be for Iran to have a nuclear-tipped missile strike force. A possible midway point for some would be for Iran to have enough highly-enriched uranium for at least one test explosion, known in jargon as a “significant quantity.” 

We are probably running out of time for such ambiguity to continue. And there is little sign that Israel’s new leader, Naftali Bennett, will take much of a different attitude on the issue from his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. The election of President Ebrahim Raisi in Iran does not provide much comfort either. A revived JCPOA, which is being negotiated in meetings in Vienna, is beginning to look increasingly inadequate for the challenge, even if an agreement of sorts can be reached.

For the moment we have firm ambiguity, rather than anything more solid. Nuclear weapons have spread surprisingly slowly since the end of World War II and never have been used in anger.  This template looks like it’s changing.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Ebrahim Raisi Jake Sullivan Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Natanz Nuclear program of Iran Nuclear proliferation
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