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Is Iran ready to build a nuclear bomb or not?

Iran is showing little willingness to reestablish the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Michael Gruber/The Associated Press
A national flag of Iran waves in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Austria.

Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium sometimes seems to be closely correlated with Washington’s ability to confuse the debate. Ten days ago it emerged that Tehran’s centrifuges were enriching to a level as high as 84 percent, very close to the 90 percent level generally accepted as needed for an atomic bomb.

But last Sunday, CIA Director William Burns told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that while Iran may be only “a matter of weeks” from acquiring such high enriched uranium, “we don’t believe that the Supreme Leader in Iran (Ali Khamenei) has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003.”

Then yesterday, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told a congressional committee that Iran could make enough fissile material (highly-enriched uranium) for one nuclear bomb in “about 12 days.” It was the first time the Biden administration had offered such precise candor.

So, are we being told to “sit down, calm down and get a grip” or not? In what seems like a fast-paced Broadway thriller (or perhaps farce), yesterday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna shared its latest report on Iran with the countries on its governing body, as well as allowing selected journalists to read the report and take notes, but not take away.

The resulting headlines blazed that the 84 percent figure was essentially correct — although, to be precise, it was actually 83.7 percent. It had been discovered after an inspection of centrifuges at Iran’s Fordow plant, built deep inside a mountain, revealed a change in pipe work. In the days when Iran was more cooperative with the IAEA, monitoring equipment would have picked up the increased enrichment level. This time, inspectors had to take wiped samples and bring them back to Vienna for analysis, a much slower process.

The tempo of headlines, confusing or otherwise, will only increase in the next few days. On March 6, the IAEA’s report will be discussed at a board of governors meeting in Vienna. Between now and then, it seems that the agency’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, is likely to make a trip to Tehran. There is also the prospect of a second report emerging, examining the progress of a separate investigation into three sites in Iran where inspectors found traces of uranium in a man-processed state for which Iran had no convincing explanation.

CIA chief Burns acknowledged to CBS that despite no evidence of weaponization, the increased levels and volumes of enriched material are concerning, as is progress on Iran’s missile program, the presumed method of delivery.

For his part, Kahl acknowledged that the volumes far exceeded those allowed under the dormant Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which President Trump withdrew in 2018.  Kahl told the congressional committee that resolving the issue diplomatically is “better than the other options.” It was far from clear whether a military option could be decisive.

An immediate challenge to diplomacy is Iran’s consistent denial that it has any intention of making an atomic bomb. Perhaps we are facing the prospect of a repeat of India’s 1974 advance, when it called the blast in a remote desert area a peaceful nuclear explosion. It would be clarity that Washington wants to avoid. But how?

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 Colin Kahl International Atomic Energy Agency Iran nuclear program Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Nuclear weapon Rafael Grossi William Burns

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