Iran – Where is the nuclear threat headed?
Dr. Ephraim Asculai | September, 2021
|Photo: Tasnim News Agency | CC BY 4.0|
Iran is commonly thought to have three supreme goals when developing nuclear weapons: deterrence; helping to achieve regional hegemony objectives; and uniting the Iranian nation around an issue that is practically in consensus. Beyond these strategic reasonings, the objectives of the nuclear program itself should be examined, particularly in its current stage (August 2021) of rapid development.
The clear proof that Iran had a weapons-grade nuclear program was found in the Iranian archive documents brought to Israel by the Mossad. Its activities since then, as well as the international safeguards findings, prove that this program continues to exist. Two possible reasons for continuing with the current nuclear program are: to pressure the world powers into lifting the economic sanctions that are hurting Iran; and the desire to proceed with the structured plan for nuclear weapon development. Although it would seem that the two reasons conflict, that is not the case. A renewed deal would, at most, lead to a certain delay in the Iranian program, but would by no means cancel it, for the current agreement allows it, and the Iranians have no intention of terminating such an important and prestigious program.
The basic assumption is that Iran has an organized plan consisting of tasks, objectives, and perhaps even timetables that unites all technologies required and separate tracks to attain a single, ultimate goal: manufacturing nuclear weapons for military purposes. Every military nuclear development project has three tracks that are performed separately but of course fully coordinated: producing the fissile material that will generate the nuclear yield; the explosive mechanism that will make the fissile material produce this yield; and manufacturing the weapon in a form suitable for the delivery to its destination. Since the JCPOA was agreed in 2015, Iran had stopped and, to some extent, reversed, the production of its fissile material and overt development plans, all of which pertain to fissile material production. Due to the nuclear deal's constraints, as well as the limitations imposed by the Iranians with regard to international oversight of the development of its explosive mechanism, intelligence in this area is scarce, and even less is known about the weapon's delivery capabilities, primarily through the use of missiles.
Since the United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran was free to breach the terms of the JCPOA, and, at times, did so bluntly. Thus, it is consistently heading toward objectives associated with the development of nuclear weapons. The following paper will provide possible scenarios for completing this program, including potential interim Iranian objectives. It will also discuss the possible developments in such interim stages. These options are not etched in stone, but present plausible, likely scenarios. We must remind ourselves that malfunctions and changes in plans may lead to a goal only being partly attained, and to moving ahead to the next objective without having fully completed the first.
First possible objective: Waiting at the starting line
During the first part of this objective, the following will be completed: enriching enough uranium to 20% purity (estimated amount: up to 300 kg) to enable, following further enrichment, the production of two cores for nuclear explosive devices. If Iran should decide to prepare the starting quantity from uranium enriched to 60% purity, just 80 kg of this material would be required. At the same time, Iran would need to complete preparations for transforming the enriched uranium from a gas to a metal core. Concurrently, the assembling of the two explosive mechanisms must be completed, but in "non-military" form, which will not be deliverable using military means. The explosive device would continue to be developed for launching using military means. Some work may be required to prepare a tunnel site for an underground nuclear test. Iran has no reason to stop at this stage, and we should assume that it would go on, wherever possible, with its enriching and development activities. However, any shift beyond the starting line would require a decision to be reached by the Supreme Leader, who would take all developments stemming from this step, in the event that it becomes known, into consideration.
Second possible objective: Assembling a nuclear explosive device
Completing the enrichment of the quantities of weapons-grade uranium required (approximately 90%, estimated amount: 45 kg) and turning them into two nuclear cores. Making the two explosive devices that would enclose the two cores. Progress in the preparation of a tunnel for a nuclear test. Possible adaptation of explosive devices for orderly nuclear tests, designing the explosive devices for delivery using “terrorist” means. Continuing to work toward designing the explosive device for a missile warhead. Iran may stop at this stage if it would strive to adopt an ambiguous policy while pursuing the attainment of political goals without disclosing its being a nuclear threshold state for all intents and purposes.
Third possible objective: Performing an underground nuclear test explosion
In this case, there are two clear options: exploding the device, and performing the explosion while using diagnostic measuring systems for future improvements (or a failure diagnosis). If Iran will not be pressed for time, this last option would be selected. Iran would take this step (much like North Korea) if and when the political conditions would compel it to. By doing so, Iran would become a member of the nuclear club, similar in status to India, Pakistan, and North Korea. In the event that it will not conduct a nuclear test, Iran would continue with its development and equipping activities without publicly disclosing the state of its program.
Fourth possible objective: Preparing for launching a bomb either by “terror” or military means
This is a technical objective, at the end of which Iran would have proven and/or declared nuclear weapons (especially if test explosion is conducted) that would change the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
According to the IAEA report dated September 2021, and the subsequent ISIS analysis, Iran is in possession of 84.3 kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity, and 10 kg of uranium enriched to 60% purity. Iran has all the technical means available to reach the quantities required at the starting line within 4 to 6 weeks. A seemingly "new" issue the Iranians have recently made public is transforming the enriched uranium into metal. This is not new, and will not serve as a barrier in Iranian timetables. Since there is no indication that the Iranians have stopped working on the development of the explosive mechanism in recent months, and since there are no proper inspections at the sites used for this development, we must assume that the Iranians are almost at the starting line in this respect. The common assumption in January 2021 was that the development of the explosive mechanism would take 8 to 10 months. There is no reason to assume otherwise.
The second objective may be attained within several weeks of the end of the first.
The purpose of the test explosion depends on the form selected, and greatly depends on the level of site preparation. Since knowledge in this area is relatively scarce, we must assume that it would be completed within 12 months of the decision to do so, but this greatly depends on the actions taken by Iran in this regard.
Iran tends to make statements on various topics quite often. For instance, it denies having a military nuclear program, claims the archive documents are forged, and that it has been complying with the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). And, indeed, if one reads the text of this treaty, and believes that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, or breaching Article II thereof, then it is right… This is an example of the treaty's weakness, as well as its inability to force the parties to it to comply with its requirements. If the powers negotiating with Iran will keep displaying weakness, there is no doubt that Iran will be free to complete the first two stages almost with no interruption, for in the absence of a complete return to a full, stringent oversight regime, with inspectors authorized to visit anytime, anywhere, they will have no reason to refrain from doing so.
Authored by Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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