Iran’s fast-expanding nuclear program – the history, the progress, and the ‘breaches’

International monitors are watching Iran’s fast-expanding nuclear program with growing alarm.

UN’s atomic energy watchdog recently held its annual general conference to discuss Iran’s expanding nuclear program. The conference highlighted that negotiations to revive a 2015 landmark agreement with world powers that curbed Iran’s nuclear power are at a standstill. According to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran’s capital Tehran continues to step up its nuclear activities.

Details of the 2015 landmark agreement

Under the 2015 deal with Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium above 3.67 percent, well below the 90-percent threshold needed for use in a nuclear weapon. Moreover, negotiations during the agreement only allowed Iran to have a stockpile of 202.8 kilograms in total — equivalent to 300 kilograms in a particular compound form.

Iran breaches the landmark agreement

Iran has announced successive breaches of the deal since May 2019 in reaction to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the reimposition of harsh sanctions on Iran. A report describes the breaches as follows:

  • Iran has amassed a stockpile of 2,441.3 kilograms. The total amount now includes 84.3 kilograms enriched to 20 percent, as well as 10 kilograms enriched up to 60 percent.
  • Iran has started producing uranium metal – a key material used to make nuclear weapon cores, under a civil use pretext.
  • Iran has made irreversible progress on operating advanced centrifuges – machines used for uranium enrichment – and on enrichment, including practicing multi-step enrichment to shorten the process of moving to weapon-grade.

Will Iran create a nuclear bomb?

As per experts, the time needed to acquire the fissile material necessary to manufacture a bomb — was about a year. However, with the recent developments, the time required has been reduced further.

Andrea Stricker, the co-author of a recent report of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said:

Enrichment to 60 percent could be around 99 percent of the effort to reach weapon grade, which underscores the gravity of the situation. Iran currently has a lower stock of enriched uranium than it had before 2015. In 2015, the country had enough material for more than ten nuclear weapons. However, Iran’s expanding nuclear program is now much leaner and more agile than in 2015 due to progress with advanced centrifuges, which were not supposed to exist by this point.

Experts note that Iran would also need to take other steps, besides enriching uranium, to have a bomb. Eric Brewer of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said:

Even if Iran produced enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it would need to convert that material into the atomic core and package that with explosives and other components to make a nuclear device. Additional steps would be required to fit that device on top of a missile and have it work correctly.

Brewer further shared:

IAEA inspectors also regularly visit Iran. Their access has been reduced since earlier this year, but their monitoring activities would still help them detect a dash to a nuclear weapon reasonably quickly. The real challenge right now is that Iran’s expanded nuclear activities, in particular its use of advanced centrifuges, are creating knowledge that is hard to erase with a simple return to the landmark nuclear deal.

How close is Iran to developing its own nuclear weapons?

According to reports, Iran denies wanting nuclear weapons for war. The country expresses that its nuclear program activities are purely for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity and treating cancer patients. However, only time will unveil the true intent of Iran’s expanding nuclear program.

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