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Iran on the Nuclear Brink

10 36 24

Last month, Iran’s nuclear program entered dangerous new territory: Tehran now possesses enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. That material, enriched to 60 percent, would need to be further enriched to roughly 90 percent—so-called weapons-grade uranium—before it could be used in a nuclear weapon. But that process, known as “breakout,” will now take just weeks due to Iran’s advances since 2019, when Tehran began casting off the constraints of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. Although this action alone would not give Iran a bomb, it is the most important step in building one.

The consequences of this milestone are profound. Until now, the international community has had months, if not years, to prevent any Iranian dash to bomb-grade material—plenty of time to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Should that fail, the United States has always kept military options as a last resort. Indeed, this fact has helped deter Iran from trying to build a bomb. But as U.S. envoy Robert Malley noted last month, Iran’s capabilities have reached the point where Tehran “could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we could know it, let alone stop it.” Given that Democrats and Republicans have long maintained that they will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons, the fact that the United States might not be able to prevent an Iranian dash should be deeply worrying.

The easiest solution to this problem, and the one the United States appears to still be banking on, would be a return to the Iran nuclear deal. This would buy time by rolling back many of these nuclear gains, putting Iran’s breakout timeline at roughly six months. But talks to revive the accord have stalled over Iran’s demand that the U.S. State Department remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its designated terrorist list—apparently a bridge too far for the Biden administration. The problem with waiting for a bargain to materialize, however, is that the longer the stalemate drags on, the less likely a deal becomes as its benefits diminish for both Tehran and Washington.

Unfortunately, the international community might be faced with an Iran at the threshold of a nuclear weapon for the foreseeable future. Washington will have to think creatively about how to manage this state of affairs if it wants to avoid an Iranian bomb and the negative consequences that would follow.

It is useful to think about the challenges posed by breakout as being governed by three clocks. The first clock measures the time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a bomb. The second, the time it would take international inspectors or Western capitals to detect those activities. And the third, the amount of time required for the international community to respond. Historically, the time on the first clock has been sufficiently longer than the time on the second and third clocks. But today that is no longer the case.

According to U.S. officials, Iran would need “a matter of weeks” to produce enough material for a bomb, while some outside experts have estimated that it could be done in about ten days (the first clock). This timeline will probably continue to shrink as Iran’s program advances. Inspectors visit Iran’s........

© Foreign Affairs

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