Independent analysts believe that Iran is not in a crash programme to create nuclear weapons, but the enrichment process is really a pressure tool developed by Iran to gain political and economic concessions.
‘Iran is ten weeks away from acquiring enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb”, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz said last week during a briefing in Jerusalem to UN Security Council ambassadors. Gantz claimed that Iran had violated all of the guidelines set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed in 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany.
Unsurprisingly, Gantz conveniently failed to mention that the JCPOA came apart in May 2018, when former US President Donald Trump, encouraged by Israel, made the crass error of walking away from the deal, even though according to UN inspectors it had been working perfectly well with Iran in full compliance. Trump wanted to increase the scope of the deal to include Iran’s missile development and its aggression in the Middle East, believing that hard sanctions would cause Iran to cave in. It hasn’t. The remaining signatories worked hard to keep the deal alive, even enacting a blocking statute to nullify the Trump administration’s sanctions on countries trading with Iran, but an embittered Teheran told the world that it would re-commence its enrichment process. Few were surprised that in July 2019 Iran announced that it had breached the limit set on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
Gantz’s warning came four months after Iran said it would start enriching uranium to 60% purity, a key step on the path to 90% enriched uranium that’s required to make a bomb. But this doesn’t mean that Iran is just ten weeks away from actually having a nuclear bomb. To build a weapon, Iran would have to encase the weapons-grade material in a nuclear core, mount the core on the tip of a missile, and then acquire the technology to launch it, have it land accurately on target, and then detonate.
The question is, does Iran have any of the technology to pose a near-term nuclear threat in the region? On this the jury is out, but two years ago the UK, France and Germany warned the UN that Iran had tested a Shahab-3 missile variant, equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle that they claimed could deliver a nuclear weapon, an allegation which Iran denied. While little is known for certain about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the regime is not thought to possess sufficient technology, and some analysts believe that it will take another two or three years to produce a viable nuclear weapon.
A major problem for the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is that it hasn’t been able to access the data needed to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme since late February, when the Islamic Republic started restricting international inspections of its facilities. Beforehand, some 2,000 tamper-proof seals on Iran’s nuclear material communicated electronically to inspectors. There were also automated measuring devices which provided real-time data from the program and images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. In February, a desperate head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, successfully negotiated a last minute deal that Iran would hold onto footage shot by the cameras and would hand it over if diplomats reached a deal in Vienna to lift the current sanctions. If no deal is reached, Teheran has said that the images would be deleted.
So how could Gantz be so confident about his prediction of “about ten weeks”, as with no monitoring, the IAEA can only provide estimates of Iran’s stockpile rather than precise figures? He’s not the first to issue such a warning. Back in February, Antony Blinken in his first official interview as US Secretary of State, also claimed that Iran was “months” away from building a nuclear bomb. He predicted that if all the restraints of the nuclear deal were abandoned, Iran could have enough fissile material “within weeks”.
As so often in the diplomatic world, you have to unwrap statements to see what lies behind them. Independent analysts believe that Iran is not in a crash programme to create nuclear weapons, but the enrichment process is really a pressure tool developed by Iran to gain political and economic concessions. Former CIA chief, Leon Panetta, argued some years ago that Iran’s goal is to maintain a state of “nuclear latency”, which means having the capability without fully developing it to the point of assembling nuclear warheads. A status of nuclear ambiguity based on latent capability actually gives Iran strategic advantages by both establishing coercive power while limiting response. At the same time, it can be used to obtain the concessions Iran seeks in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
During the six rounds of negotiations in Vienna, now stalled for two months following the hard-liner Raisi’s election in June as Iran’s president, considerable progress was made, even though the Biden administration refused to relax Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and launched airstrikes against Iranian militias in Syria. There are now some major sticking points before a seventh round can start, as Iran is insisting that some sanctions are lifted and demands an assurance from Washington that there won’t be any Trump 2.0, with the Americans walking away from the agreement again.
The elephant in the room has always been Israel, which has consistently been vehemently against the JCPOA right from the beginning. Believing that any nuclear deal would jeopardise its security, Israel has tried to thwart negotiations in every possible way. This is why Gantz’s briefing last week was carefully timed to disrupt any possibility of talks recommencing soon, even suggesting that it was time for military action, a threat he had made in March when, as Israel’s defence minister, he confirmed that his country had drawn up plans to strike Iranian targets. When the nuclear deal was signed in April 2005, after 12 years of talks, President Obama called the deal “historic”, while Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu called it a “mistake of historic proportions”. Since then, Israel’s opposition to the nuclear deal has gone beyond words, with Iran accusing Israel of assassinating its top nuclear scientist and sabotaging its main nuclear facility Natanz in a series of attacks, charges which Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.
Israel continues to see the JCPOA as a path leading towards a nuclear armed Iran. While Iran routinely denies the pursuit of nuclear weapons—in his first speech as President, Raisi repeated the fatwa of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “nuclear weapons have no place in the defence strategy of the Islamic Republic”—for Israel the question still stands whether Iran can be trusted not to use its nuclear latency. With an undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal of its own, Israel has questioned why Iran, a country with the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves, remains so focused on an alleged civil nuclear reactor programme to secure the country’s future energy.
Despite all this, few believe that a “hot war” is imminent and that all parties with a vested interest are trying to position themselves in the strongest possible way ahead of the next phase of talks in Vienna. Iran senses that the Biden administration is eager to avoid being pulled into a conflict in the Middle East and believes that the uranium enrichment announcement, real or imaginary, gives it extra leverage to gain concessions from the US and its European allies. One expert commentator put it this way: “The Iranians have all the confidence of a bazaar merchant who believes the American tourist is not going to leave without buying a carpet.” Now, that is a serious game of bluff.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.