Translation Introduction:

With Iran in possession of sufficient quantities of 60% enriched uranium, along with advanced centrifuges, its possession of the fissile material needed to make a bomb becomes a matter of a few days or weeks at the slowest, an unprecedented scenario in the history of the Iranian nuclear crisis.

How will Washington act then?

What are its options for a diplomatic and military response?

That's what Eric Brower, senior director of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (a nongovernmental initiative that monitors and prevents the spread of nuclear threats), and a former member of the National Security Council and the US National Intelligence Council, addresses in his recent article in Foreign Affairs.

Translation text:

Last month, Iran's nuclear program entered a new and dangerous realm: Tehran now has enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb (and highly enriched uranium, or uranium-235, is more than 20% enriched)*.

This 60% enriched material will now need to be further enriched to about 90% before it can be used in a nuclear weapon, which is called bomb-grade uranium.

However, this process called "nuclear breakout" will only take weeks now given the progress Iran has made on the nuclear front since 2019;

When Tehran began to loosen the restrictions of the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 after the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement.

Although this development alone does not give Iran a nuclear bomb, it is the most important step on the road to building a bomb.

The consequences of this important leap are enormous.

So far, the international community has had months, if not years, to curb any Iranian rush to build a nuclear bomb, plenty of time to allow the crisis to be resolved diplomatically.

And if diplomacy fails, the United States has reserved options for a military solution as a last resort.

This fact has already deterred Iran from trying to build a nuclear bomb, but Iran's capabilities are now at a point where it can "produce enough energy for a nuclear bomb before we even know it, as well as stop it," the envoy stated. American "Robert Malley" last month.

Given that Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly stated that they will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons, the fact that the United States may not be able to curb Iran's access to the bomb-making door should be deeply troubling.

Apparently, the easiest solution to this problem, and one on which the United States seems to be still counting, is to return to the nuclear agreement. This solution would give us time to roll back Iran's nuclear advances, and slow down the timeline for Iran's nuclear breakthrough. to about six months instead of a few weeks.

However, talks about reviving the nuclear deal have been bogged down by Iran's demand that the US State Department remove the Revolutionary Guards from its terrorist lists, which seems a long way from the Biden administration.

But the problem awaiting the formulation of a deal is the following: the longer the crisis continues, the less likely it is to strike a deal in the first place, as the desired benefits of any agreement will be less in the eyes of both Tehran and Washington.

Unfortunately, the international community may find itself standing before Iran on the threshold of building a nuclear weapon for the foreseeable future.

Washington will have to think differently and innovatively about how to manage this situation if it wants to avoid the emergence of an Iranian nuclear bomb and its negative consequences.

Timeline of the "nuclear breakout"

It is useful to think of the challenges posed by a nuclear breakout as being governed by “three hours”: the first hour measures how long it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb, the second hour measures the time it would take international inspectors or Western capitals to monitor these nuclear activities. The third and final hour measures the time necessary for the international community to respond to these activities.

Over the course of recent history, the time spent in the first hour has always been longer than the last two, but today things are no longer the same.

According to US officials, Iran may need "a few weeks" to produce enough material for a bomb, while other experts estimate that Tehran can do so within ten days (that is the first hour), and this time path is likely to shrink with progress Iranian programme.

Inspectors visit the fertilization sites about once a week (that's two o'clock).

Then Iran could time the breakout so that the inspectors would arrive and find out that it had produced enough for a bomb too late.

Iran can also create an excuse to prevent the inspectors from having their normal access to the nuclear sites, so that it will complete its manufacture of the necessary nuclear material in their absence.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a public address in Sharmhal and Bakhtiari province of Iran on June 9, 2022, in response to the resolution approved by the Executive Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency against his country.

(Anadolu Agency)

The inspectors will tell the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the situation, but this information must reach Washington after that.

It is also possible - although not certain - that the United States or one of its allies will discover Iranian preparations for a nuclear breakout through information collected by its own intelligence services.

The United States may, however, wish to analyze this information and bring together senior officials to discuss and debate available options, a process that may take more time.

With Iran close to completing its nuclear breakout, Washington will have to respond quickly (we are then at 3:00).

Unfortunately, there will be no time for diplomacy then, and the United States will need to intervene militarily.

The availability of the military option or not at that moment will depend on several other factors. The United States may want to use the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, which, as we know, is the most capable weapon to reach the Iranian facilities buried underground, where the nuclear penetration process will take place. It is a portable weapon with B-2 bombers located in the state of "Missouri".

The flight time to Iran may take more than thirty hours, which is a very long time that would not prevent a nuclear breakout in this scenario, in addition to the required flight of B-2 fuel planes as well.

Then we have a question:

Things may get more complicated and take longer after this scenario.

The United States may wish to strike a number of nuclear sites, and to target Iran's radar and air defense systems;

To reduce the risk of shooting down American planes, it may want to have missile defense and other military capabilities in the region to defend against Iranian retaliation.

In fact, some of these options would be impossible to implement within those tight time frames, and so this could lead the United States to refrain from taking any action at all.

Instead of trying to achieve a "nuclear breakout" at known nuclear sites, Iran might attempt to move its nuclear material to a secret facility between one international inspection and another, for further enrichment to 90%.

Iran would then need a secret enrichment facility that currently has no indications (although the fact that inspectors have been denied access to cameras that have been monitoring Iranian centrifuges since February 2021 makes this difficult to verify).

Unlike in the past, when Iran used the first generation of slow centrifuges and low-enriched uranium;

Iran today has growing stockpiles of 60% and 20% fertiliser, and more advanced centrifuges as well.

If this means anything, it means that Tehran may build a smaller, harder-to-detect enrichment unit, enabling it to enrich uranium 90% faster than before.

Nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz, in central Iran (European)

Of course, having the fissile material for a nuclear bomb is not the same as owning the bomb, as it would take Iran much longer—perhaps a year or two—to build a nuclear weapon and load it onto a missile.

However, fissile material remains the most internationally controlled part, and therefore the most detectable part of the nuclear bomb-making process.

Armament activities may take place in scattered facilities that are not subject to effective oversight and bear few signs of military activity.

The United States may struggle to detect ongoing armaments after Iran has produced the necessary fissile material.

Even if Tehran does not manufacture a nuclear bomb or the necessary fissile material, its survival as a nuclear-capable country will generate serious political challenges. Iranian foreign policy will become more emboldened and aggressive if it believes in its ability to brandish the sword of nuclear penetration and impose it on the neck of the international community.

Iran can also enhance its nuclear immunity in ways that do not require a comprehensive nuclear weapons program, including by developing ICBMs.

Finally, in order to confront Iran on the cusp of building a nuclear bomb, and with doubts about Washington's ability to stop it;

Countries in the region could embark on their own nuclear fortification efforts or programs to acquire a bomb, which poses an additional challenge to the international non-proliferation regime.

US allies and partners may be trying to threaten that they will be nuclear-armed to pressure Washington for stronger security guarantees and defense aid, a strategy that US allies in Asia have pursued.

Washington may find itself caught between two bitter choices.

Either more military commitment to the Middle East at a time when you'd rather go elsewhere, or stay at a distance from the region, and then risk further proliferation of nuclear and missile weapons around the world.

Turn back the clock

While the fate of the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance, Tehran has little incentive to halt its nuclear progress, which it believes is putting pressure on the West, and this fact will become more and more entrenched if talks to revive the agreement fail.

As Washington waits for the fruits of diplomacy, then it should focus on what it can control in this crisis: the second and third hours, namely, accelerating detection and response.

To increase the likelihood of the international community discovering an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, the United States and its allies, and if possible China and Russia, should pressure Iran to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) daily visits to its enrichment and nuclear material storage sites.

Moreover, Iran should resume use of online enrichment monitoring devices, an automated technology that constantly monitors enrichment levels when IAEA officials are not present.

These measures were in place under the Iran nuclear deal, but were then abandoned by Iran.

The United States should also increase its own intelligence-gathering efforts, as well as coordinate with its allies, to help provide as much warning time as possible.

When Iran has only a few days and enough material to build a bomb, every second can make a difference, and these measures would save valuable time and help deter Iran from achieving a nuclear breakthrough.

There are many reasons to believe that Iran might adopt such conditions: First, there is a strong, non-political argument that these additional reserves are necessary for the IAEA to carry out its oversight function, since Iran is the only country that produces HEU and does not possess nuclear weapons.

The second is that these measures will help provide important guarantees to the international community that Iran is not racing against time to obtain the bomb, and thus reduce the possibility of a military strike against it, which Iran is supposed to see in its interest.

With this dwindling margin of error, any delay in the inspector's arrival at Iranian sites—even if it was a misunderstanding or just an accident rather than an attempt to carry out a nuclear breakout—could lead to a miscalculation that Iran would be keen to avoid.

The United States and its allies may also need to speed up their ability to respond.

The US National Security Council will have to establish a committee that convenes as soon as it receives information indicating an Iranian nuclear penetration.

But the step that has the greatest impact that the United States can take is to shorten the time for a military response, and this step is perhaps the most difficult.

One option would be to increase readiness and ensure that all military capabilities required for the strike - such as refueling aircraft - can be ready in a short time.

Another option is to deploy aircraft, missile defense systems, and other forms of military support in the region. For example, American B-2 bombers are periodically deployed outside the United States, but without a permanent presence abroad, and Washington may need to consider increasing Frequent deployments or permanent bases outside the United States, the necessary and attendant risks.

US President Joe Biden (Getty)

In conclusion, Washington should calculate and arrange these diplomatic and military steps appropriately, and carefully consider which steps should be disclosed and which ones should be kept secret so that its efforts do not unintentionally lead to a scenario that it wants to avoid: Iran's rush to nuclear weapons.

Although Iran may reject the idea, the United States must also push to establish a direct line of communication with Tehran to manage potential crises.

Finally, Washington should be open to the option of postponing some military steps if Tehran chooses a policy of restraint and transparency with regard to nuclear armament, since the ultimate goal is not to strike Iran, but rather to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb from being built.

This approach would be consistent with American efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement, but it would require the United States to confront the inconvenient fact that it cannot pin its hopes on reviving the nuclear deal solely to solve the current dilemma.

In fact, these options are not ideal options, but the failure to restore the nuclear agreement so far makes them all that Washington has left to restrain Iran from nuclear armament.


This article has been translated from Foreign Affairs and does not necessarily reflect the website of Maidan.

Translation: Karim Muhammad.