Editorial: Is Iran a month away from obtaining nuclear breakout capability?

Reports that Iran intends to dismantle at least another 25 surveillance cameras raise concerns for the region and the fate of the nuclear deal amid reports that Iran is a month away from obtaining nuclear breakout capability.

By Team MEB

Reports from June 8 indicate that Iran has dismantled two surveillance cameras installed by the global nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and reportedly intends to remove at least another 25. The move, which effectively prevents the IAEA from monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, including its centrifuges and uranium enrichment is poised to worsen relations. The board of governors introduced a resolution to censure Iran in response to the move, stating that Tehran has failed to provide “credible information” over manufactured nuclear material found at three undeclared sites. 

The IAEA board members – comprising of the US, and the members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) led by France, Germany, and the UK – expressed “deep concern” over Iran’s nuclear advance. These include possession of 60 per cent enriched uranium, in addition to deploying 2,000 advanced centrifuges and expanded research and development. This is “fueling distrust as to Iran’s intentions,” the board members added. They also maintained that Iran’s nuclear activities have no civilian use justification.

Iran’s clerics have likely been emboldened to dismantle the security cameras by the recent collapse of talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal in March. Talks have collapsed due to a variety of reasons, including the US’s refusal to adhere to the Iranian demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be delisted from the US list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” which it has been placed under since 2019. Russian demands have also impacted talks, with the US, UK, France and Germany refusing to allow a guarantee that any future Russian business with Iran is exempt from EU and US sanctions.

Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the IAEA termed Iran’s removal of 27 surveillance cameras, whose reports surfaced on June 9, as “a near-fatal blow to chances of reviving the 2015 deal.” Grossi further warned that in three to four weeks, it would be unable to maintain a “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s program. By IAEA’s estimate, the removal would leave “40-something” cameras still in Iran. Among the devices being removed was a crucial meter that tracks how high Iran is enriching uranium. As Iran’s ruling clerics continue to claim that their nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes, not for manufacturing nuclear weapons, one has to wonder why they would turn off the IAEA surveillance cameras if they have nothing to conceal. 

Iran has enriched a considerable amount of uranium – up to 60% purity, a step away from the 90% purity level required to build a nuclear weapon following the Biden administration’s warning in April that Iran was “weeks” away from obtaining nuclear breakout capability. Given the potential danger of Iran becoming a nuclear state, the Biden administration has done little to prevent Iran’s ruling mullahs from continuing to advance their nuclear program. This partially stems from the fact that Russia and China are unlikely to pressure Iran to cooperate with the IAEA or halt their nuclear activities. 

Tehran’s impending move to obtain nuclear weapons risks new crises in the region. Firstly, there is the danger that these nuclear weapons will come into the possession of Iran’s proxies and militia groups or even its allies such as the Syrian regime and Taliban in Afghanistan. This is extremely plausible given reports that Iran is currently in the process of building weapons factories abroad and in Syria where it is manufacturing ballistic missiles and weapons. 

Iran becoming a nuclear state also has the potential to provoke a nuclear arms race in the region. In 2018, Saudi Arabia made it clear that it would work to counteract any Iranian nuclear weapons with one of its own. If Saudi Arabia were to acquire nuclear weapons, many believe that Turkey would also follow suit, given that in 2019 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan stated that he “cannot accept” the argument that Turkey should not be allowed to attain nuclear weapons.

President Biden has two options – option A involves returning to negotiations with Iran and seeking support from the nations that helped to negotiate it, although this would likely involve repealing the unilateral sanctions put in place by the Trump administration. This is liable to attract scathing domestic criticism from the right who are likely to argue that Iran will not abandon its nuclear ambitions. Option B involves military options against Iran’s nuclear sites. The US and its allies must make clear to the Iranian regime that they will not allow the current regime to arm itself with nuclear weapons and risk a nuclear arms race.

Tags : Iran