Prior to launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, Iran announced on Sunday that it would discard “the last key component of its operational limitations” under the 2015 nuclear deal, namely “enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development.” With this nuclear escalation, Tehran’s breakout time, or the time needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon, may decrease rapidly in the coming months.
Roughly every 60 days since May 2019, Iran has been drawing down its commitments to the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although Iran’s fifth such move followed America’s January 2 assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, Tehran had already scheduled it for this past Sunday.
With the removal of restrictions on enrichment, Iran will likely continue to increase its enrichment capacity along one or more lines: installing additional centrifuges, including advanced centrifuges; ramping up production of enriched uranium; and enriching uranium to higher levels.
As of November 2019, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear activities, Iran’s enrichment capacity had increased by 36 percent since May. The next report, slated for release in February, will thus certainly indicate an additional increase.
An aggressive near-term action by the regime would likely involve restarting uranium enrichment to levels of 20 percent at the Natanz and/or Fordow centrifuge facilities. Iran did not state that it would do so, but it previously carried out 20-percent enrichment at the above-ground Natanz facility in 2011, prompting the unprecedented international economic sanctions that followed in 2012.
If Iran pursues 20-percent enrichment, its breakout time will fall sharply and swiftly. That is because this level of enrichment represents about 90 percent of the effort required to reach the most desirable level of weapons-grade uranium, uranium enriched to 90 percent.
David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security estimates that in the worst-case scenario, and even absent 20-percent enrichment, Iran’s breakout timeline now stands at four to five months. Weaponizing Iran’s fissile material would require additional weeks to months, and most experts agree that Iran would prefer to initially produce more than one weapon, so a practical timetable could be longer. For now, Iran has said that it will continue its cooperation with the IAEA, allowing inspector access to detect increased enrichment at declared facilities.
First, the administration should state that if Iran moves to restart 20-percent enrichment, the United States will invoke its right to initiate snapback of all UN sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.
Second, Washington should enumerate at least four Iranian actions that, if taken, could trigger U.S. aerial military strikes, including: the operation of covert enrichment sites, as confirmed by strong intelligence; the diversion of fissile material; the attempt to prevent IAEA inspectors from accessing key facilities; or the withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Depending on events, the president should retain flexibility in responding, but these four actions likely would represent an unacceptably high risk of impending breakout.
The United States should avoid additional kinetic conflict with Iran if possible, but Washington must be willing to employ all instruments of national power against Iran if it appears to be approaching breakout. Under the current circumstances, Washington should plan for the worst and work to deter an Iranian nuclear breakout before it starts.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Andrea and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.