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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

How Long until Iran Builds a Nuclear Weapon?

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare

How Long until Iran Builds a Nuclear Weapon?
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said during a press conference at the Fordow nuclear site on November 7, 2019, that the organization was instructed to enrich uranium to a level of 5 percent but “is capable of reaching an enrichment level of 20 and even 60 percent. At the moment, the need is for 5 percent.”1 He added Iran had reached an enrichment level of 4.5 percent at Fordow this summer, and that the IAEA inspectors who came to examine the site would confirm the 5 percent level.2 Kamalvandi stressed that the Fordow enrichment facility is essential for the process of enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent for Iran’s fuel cycle.3 

“Today,” the spokesman continued, “a container carrying 2,000 kg of UF6 Uranium Hexafluoride gas was transferred from Natanz enrichment plant to the Fordow nuclear plant, and the transfer was done under the supervision of IAEA agents.”4 

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, announced on November 4, 2019, that the Natanz plant produces today a tenfold increase in enriched uranium production to five kilograms per day, up from 450 grams two months ago. Salehi inaugurated a chain of 60 modern and faster IR-6 centrifuges, replacing the first generation IR-1 models.5

Kamalvandi, the AEOI spokesman, added that the Fordow enrichment site is “protected and fortified and that Iran indeed undertook not to enrich uranium there for a period of 19 years, but all the activity there is uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes.” He asserted, “While the United States and Israel indeed claim that Iran is trying to achieve a nuclear capability, unfortunately it is they who are working to produce nuclear weapons.”

Arak Heavy Water Reaction in Natanz
The core of the Arak Heavy Water Reactor in Natanz (Islamic Republic News Agency, September 9, 2017).

Kamalvandi’s words define Iran’s “fourth step” to reduce its commitments under the JCPOA. Iran continues to erode its obligations under the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) in light of the ongoing failure of talks with the European countries on compensating Iran for the United States’ withdrawal from the deal and renewal of sanctions on Iran.

As part of the fourth stage, Iran began injecting UF6 Uranium Hexafluoride gas into 1,044 centrifuges at the underground nuclear site in Fordow. The nuclear deal allowed Iran to operate IR-1 centrifuges, Iran’s first model, that were spun empty under the terms of the 2015 JCPOA. Iran claims that according to articles 24 and 36 of the agreement, it is allowed to forgo its obligations if the other side does not meet its own commitments and that this does not constitute a violation of the deal.

The United States called Iran’s latest move, “a big step in the wrong direction.” The AEOI spokesman said Iran had taken this step to encourage the European signatories of the nuclear deal to uphold their commitments and to “bring them back to reality,” meaning Iran is not the only one that is supposed to honor its obligations. 

Kamalvandi reiterated Iran’s position that, from an ideological and a strategic standpoint, Iran “is not even thinking about a nuclear bomb or other weapons of mass destruction.” He recalled Supreme Leader Khamenei’s fatwa [religious ruling] on nuclear weapons: “As the Leader of Iran said and even emphasized in the fatwa, the production or accumulation of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, or the use of them, is against our ideology.”

The renewal of the enrichment activity at Fordow is significant in terms of enrichment capability. From a level of 8,600 SWU/kg (Separative Work Units, the measurement unit for the enrichment procedure), that capability has now risen to 9,500 SWU, very close to the enrichment level that Iran reached before signing the nuclear deal. “How far we will be able to go toward a million SWU,” said Kamalvandi, “depends on the capability of our equipment.”6

Iran Designs and Produces its own Nuclear Equipment

Iran’s nuclear technology head, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced on November 10, 2019, that Iran was ready to share its expertise in nuclear power production with its Persian Gulf neighbors. The offer extends to nuclear energy technology.

Salehi was speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony at the extension of the civilian nuclear power plant (NPP) at Bushehr in southern Iran. The construction of the first Bushehr facility began in 1975, and it was delayed and redesigned several times by German and Russian firms. It finally came online in 2011, under Russian management.

The head of Iran’s nuclear energy organization said that six years after its groundbreaking, the expanded Bushehr NPP is operated entirely by Iranian experts with all the necessary equipment installed indigenously. The building costs of the reactor will be paid over the course of six to eight years, and with oil fuel costing $60 a barrel today, the reactor will save almost $700 million annually.

Ali Akbar Salehi and Hassan Rouhani
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, shows Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani models of nuclear centrifuges. (Iranian President’s Office)

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in October 2019 that Iran is designing and producing all necessary nuclear equipment, including various models of centrifuges. Ali Asghar Zarean, special advisor to Salehi, emphasized, “100 percent of the Iranian nuclear industry is local, and today Iran can independently provide all its requirements in design and production of different centrifuge models.”

Iranian centrifuge models
Iranian centrifuge models (Iranian press)

As part of the strategy it has adopted, Iran continues to build capabilities that will enable it to return quickly to a fully active military nuclear program whenever it chooses to do so.  At the same time, Iran continues to develop the nuclear power plant (NPP) complex in Bushehr.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the steps Iran is taking to erode its commitments to the nuclear deal are shortening its breakout time toward producing nuclear weapons. In any event, it appears that Iran does not intend to budge from its condition for a renewal of the negotiations – the lifting of the sanctions. Hence, the freeze in the talks with the European partners over the deal appears likely to continue, and so do Iran’s steps toward renouncing its commitments under the agreement. 

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