Officials’ non-responses also to keep focus on sanctions
YONAH JEREMY BOB
A variety of officials expressed doubt on Sunday about Iran’s Saturday claim to have crossed the low enriched uranium threshold for a nuclear bomb, with one calling it “preposterous” and many avoiding responding.
Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization deputy director Ali Asghar Zarean had said that it had achieved 1,200 kg. of low-enriched uranium. The IAEA and a number of Iran-watch groups regard 1,000 kg. of low-enriched uranium as enough for a nuclear bomb, which means that if the announcement was not disinformation, it would be a turning point.
However, president of the Institute for Science and International Security David Albright told The Jerusalem Post, “1,200 kg. is preposterous – it’s not possible,” estimating that the Islamic Republic was probably closer to 700-800 kg. of low-enriched uranium.
Albright explained a series of complex calculations regarding the number of centrifuges that Tehran currently has functioning and other factors to debunk Zarean’s claim.
Multiple other sources, including official Israeli sources, had also expressed skepticism about the number, but none of them were willing to go on-record.
Former IAEA official Olli Heinonen (now with the Stimson Center) said that the number did seem high, but that it would be strange for Tehran to lie when the IAEA will be able to give an exact update in only a few weeks.
The IAEA itself had not responded by press time, and neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Blue and White leader Benny Gantz wanted to comment on the issue.
Albright speculated that Iran might be trying, “to scare Trump into negotiations, by saying ‘we’re racing ahead and your sanctions policy is failing. You better negotiate.’”
In this case, Israeli officials might be avoiding commenting, hoping to keep the focus on Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, so that it does not succeed at counter-pressuring Trump.
At the same time, Albright warned that Iran could cross the 1000 kg. threshold in three to five months depending on various factors.
In contrast, if Zarean’s claim is true, the news could substantially accelerate the point at which Israel and the US might decide to intervene militarily before Iran develops a nuclear weapon.
Even in that worst case, Israel and the US still have time to deliberate since in order to fire a nuclear missile, Iran would still need to enrich the 1,200 kg. to 90% weaponized uranium and would need to develop a method to deliver the nuclear material. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi said in mid-January that such a process could take another year.
Saturday’s announcement was surprising as the last update about the Islamic Republic’s uranium stock set it at under 400 kg. Less than two weeks ago, Kochavi predicted that Tehran would not reach 1,300 kg. until the end of 2020.
Other top officials – like former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin – had predicted Iran would not reach this threshold until the summer or early fall. Even Heinonen had not predicted Iran would get to this point so quickly, suggesting April as the earliest date.
Prior to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran had roughly 10 times as much uranium – enough for 10 nuclear bombs – but never enriched any uranium above the 20% level, an intermediate level that it has not yet reached this time.
In the Saturday announcement, Zarean said Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium to any percentage should authorities in the Islamic Republic decide to do so.
“At the moment, if [Iranian authorities] make the decision, the Atomic Energy Organization, as the executor, will be able to enrich uranium at any percentage,” Zarean said.
Iran said earlier this month it would scrap limitations on enriching uranium, taking a further step back from commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, but pledged to continue cooperating with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions to throttle Iran’s oil exports as part of a “maximum pressure” policy.
The United States says it aims to force Tehran to agree to a broader deal that puts stricter limits on its nuclear work, curbs a ballistic missile program and ends regional proxy wars. Iran says it will not negotiate while sanctions remain in place.
Tehran has steadily been reducing its compliance with the deal since May 2019, which prompted Britain, France and Germany to formally accuse it in mid-January of violating the terms and activating a dispute mechanism in the deal, which could eventually lead to the reimposition of UN snapback sanctions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in mid-January that if Iran’s nuclear file is sent to the Security Council, the country will withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), according to the official IRNA news agency.
Reuters contributed to this report.