An Iranian Nuclear Breakout? Not So Fast

The Israel Defense Forces’ annual intelligence assessment, presented this week over the course of two hours, leaves a large opening for misunderstandings and inaccurate interpretations. The somewhat dramatic headlines, based on Military Intelligence’s predictions – which were general, cautious and quite reserved – demand broader discussion and additional explanation.

The mistaken impression that arose from those headlines was that the Islamic Republic if Iran is renewing its race to achieve nuclear capability, but that is not what’s happening in reality. As reflected in MI’s report and in recent data from the International Atomic Energy Commission, the truth is that the Iranians are accumulating violations to the international nuclear agreement signed by the world powers in 2015. After the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, and more intensely after the American economic sanctions were ratcheted up in May 2019, Tehran began to systematically and gradually violate it.

The aim of the regime, according to MI, is to collect tradeable “assets” ahead of renewed talks, if and when the Americans deign to return to the negotiating table to discuss an alternate form of the discarded agreement. These moves are backed up by attacks and sabotage operations targeting regional petroleum sites and the Gulf states’ oil-export routes, in an attempt to persuade the administration of President Donald Trump to back down.

The most significant violation of the agreement occurred last November, when Iran resumed uranium enrichment at the underground facility in Fordow. The fact that this site is fortified against most types of attack means that Iran is again creating a kind of immune zone around a central element of its nuclear project. On top of this, there are the other violations cited by MI, including the operation of advanced centrifuges and the accumulation of an increasing amount of enriched uranium – albeit at low level (3.67 percent) for the time being.

In April, by which time the Iranians will have accumulated a sufficient amount of uranium, about 1.3 tons’ worth, they will be able, theoretically, to advance to further levels of enrichment. In the course of the year they will be able to distill from that quantity about 40 kilos of high-level enriched uranium (90 percent), which is enough to manufacture one bomb. Two years from today, they would be capable of completing the entire project and attaining a nuclear weapon, in the form of a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile.

But whether all of this actually occurs depends on a series of decisions, as former MI chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin tweeted on Wednesday. The key factor, he says, is whether Tehran decides to produce nuclear weapons.

“Iran has refrained from doing this for years and has preferred to establish threshold capabilities, which will allow it in the future to come to a decision and implement it,” says Yadlin. “There is a high probability that Iran has not yet made a decision to manufacture weapons, and therefore the countdown to Iranian nuclear weapons capability has not yet begun.”