Iranian nuclear program provokes scramble to prevent conflagration


Iran’s new commitments to allow tighter oversight at its nuclear facilities represent a key step forward, United Nations officials said Monday as they sought to tamp down growing fears about Tehran’s nuclear program amid reports that the Islamic Republic can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb in as little as 12 days.

The recent stunning revelations about just how quickly Tehran could make nuclear weapons — down from previous estimates of roughly one year — come amid growing questions about the Biden administration’s broader strategy for containing Iran’s nuclear program, and its apparent lack of a serious Plan B after diplomatic talks with Iran collapsed last year. Republicans say the White House has made a series of drastic mistakes with respect to its Iran policy, with its ultimately fruitless year-plus diplomatic push to revive the nuclear deal killed by President Trump seemingly giving Iran the time and cover it needed to increase its nuclear capabilities.

The administration has pushed back hard against that criticism and insists it won’t allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Top U.S. intelligence officials also said recently there is no clear evidence that Iranian leaders are actively running a nuclear weaponization program, despite steadily approaching the capability to produce a bomb in just a matter of weeks if they so choose.

The re-installation of a hawkish government in Israel headed by longtime Iran nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu and a series of clashes between the U.S., Iran and their various regional allies have only exacerbated the rising sense of a crisis coming to a head.

Against that grim backdrop, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi visited Tehran over the weekend and met with Iranian officials about the country’s nuclear program. He emerged with a deal that he said would restore cameras and other monitoring equipment at key Iranian nuclear sites, including one location where particles of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade levels were recently discovered.

It felt to many like an exercise in taking a small step back from a precipice.

“I welcome Iran’s high-level assurances that it is willing to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities,” he said Monday at a key meeting of the IAEA board of governors. “And to cooperate with the agency to resolve the outstanding safeguards issues, including those pertaining to the three undeclared locations in which the agency found traces of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin. … I look forward promptly to engaging in technical follow-up discussions with Iran, as we have agreed. There is important work ahead of us.”

A joint statement from the IAEA and Tehran released over the weekend, however, indicated that key details about the future of inspections inside Iran have yet to be hammered out.

“Iran, on a voluntary basis, will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities. Modalities will be agreed between the two sides in the course of a technical meeting which will take place soon in Tehran,” the statement said.

Mr. Grossi also provoked the ire of Mr. Netanyahu over the weekend when he told reporters a pre-emptive strike to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “outlawed” under international law. Speculation is rampant in the region that Israel is contemplating just such a strike should Iran appear close to deploying a nuclear weapon.

“Rafael Grossi is a worthy person who made an unworthy remark,” Mr. Netanyahu told a weekly cabinet meeting Sunday. “Outlawed by what law? Is Iran, which publicly calls for our extermination, allowed to protect its weapons of destruction that will slaughter us?”

The IAEA chief declined to comment on Mr. Netanyahu’s criticism, saying Monday “there is nothing new really in what I said. I reiterated international law.”

Last week, the IAEA reported that uranium enriched up to 83.7% was discovered at Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site. The multinational 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by the U.S. during the Obama administration, limited Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67%, which is enough to produce civilian power — which Iran claims is the purpose of its nuclear programs — but not enough for a weapon.

Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement in 2018 and reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Tehran. Since then, Iran has ceased abiding by the terms of the JCPOA and has steadily increased its uranium enrichment past the threshold laid out in the deal, even as it negotiated with the U.S. and its partners to try and resurrect the pact throughout 2021 and 2022.

Enrichment of about 90% is needed to produce nuclear weapons, analysts say, a level that Iran could reach in just a matter of days. The lack of adequate surveillance and limited IAEA inspections in Iran have heightened fears that Tehran could move quickly and secretly to hit that mark.

Buying time

But Iran’s new agreements with the IAEA seem to have held off any further immediate action by the international community. Citing Western diplomats, Agence France-Presse reported Monday that the UN won’t pursue a new resolution of censure against Iran over the recent highly-enriched uranium discoveries.

Still, the U.S. and Europe remain cautious.

‘We expect, most importantly, Iran to take prompt and concrete action in line with the joint statement” released over the weekend, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Monday. “Too many times in the past we’ve seen Iran issue vague promises only never to follow through.”

Indeed, detailed inspections and unfettered access for IAEA inspectors will be crucial in the weeks and months to come. Specialists say that Iran is at a pivotal moment in its nuclear program.

“Iran can now break out and produce enough weapon-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 12 days, using only three advanced centrifuge cascades and half of its existing stock of 60% enriched uranium. This breakout could be difficult for inspectors to detect promptly, if Iran took steps to delay inspectors’ access,” researchers with the Institute for Science and International Security and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said in a recent report, echoing public statements by U.S. officials about Iran’s rapid potential path to nuclear weapons.

“Using its remaining stock of 60% enriched uranium and its stock of near 20% enriched uranium, Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for an additional four nuclear weapons in a month,” the researchers wrote. “During the next two months, Iran could produce two more weapons’ worth of weapon-grade uranium from its stock of less than 5% enriched uranium, meaning that Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for five nuclear weapons in one month and seven in three months.”

Those assessments have added fresh fuel to the political fight between the administration and its Republican critics, who argue that the U.S. should have kept up intense economic pressure on Tehran rather than pursuing diplomacy.

“I think the American people understood that our relationship with Iran can’t be one of coziness,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday” on Sunday. “We can’t negotiate with them while they are trying to kill Americans. Those are the wrong policies with respect to the United States and Iran. We have to get this right and the Biden demonstration has failed miserably.”

Negotiations aimed at reviving the JCPOA fell apart last year. Administration officials cited Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA, its brutal crackdown on domestic protests, and its military backing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the central reasons for the collapse.

Tehran, for its part, said the U.S. refused to provide guarantees that a future administration would not follow Mr. Trump’s lead and abrogate the deal after Mr. Biden left office.

Iranian-backed militias also have routinely targeted U.S. troops stationed in Syria and Iraq, which has ratcheted up tensions even higher between the two nations.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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