The recent detection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of uranium enrichment to nearly 84 per cent at an Iranian facility has raised serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This level of enrichment is just below the 90 per cent mark, which is necessary for successful nuclear weapons production.
Iran still claims that it only wants to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Iran described the very high level of enrichment in the traces found as unintended fluctuation. In order to verify Tehran’s claims, the Director General of the IAEA recently travelled to Iran. The purpose of the negotiations with the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) is to achieve greater compliance and cooperation, as well as to carry out further verification and monitoring activities.
The U.S. Defence Department has been warning for months that the time it takes Iran to produce enough fissile material to make one bomb has been reduced to less than two weeks. However, it should be stressed that this does not necessarily mean that Iran is capable of producing a nuclear bomb in less than 14 days. Leaving aside the financial cost of producing a nuclear weapon, the IAEA Director General stated that it would require months to produce a nuclear weapon that could be used in a missile. Although the U.S. intelligence community believes that Tehran still has not decided to resume its nuclear weapons program, the mere discovery of such highly enriched uranium points to the urgent need for diplomatic action to dissuade Iran from taking such a step in the future. These would eventually lead to ongoing monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programme to ensure compliance with international regulations.
However, negotiations on the renewal of the so-called nuclear deal (JPCOA) with Iran are currently stalled. Back in 2015, Iran signed an international agreement in which it agreed to curb its nuclear programme and promised not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for an easing of sanctions imposed on Tehran. But in 2018, Donald Trump withdrew from the deal on the grounds that it was ineffective and reimposed sanctions on Iran. US President Joe Biden has pushed for a new “longer-term and more robust” nuclear deal. The issue now is to find a compromise acceptable to both Tehran and Washington.
Iran’s rapprochement with Moscow in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also poses a specific risk. The two countries are deepening their cooperation under international sanctions, with Iran supplying Moscow with drones as well as ammunition. Concerns have been raised in the West that Moscow could in return supply Iran with the means to improve the defences of Iran’s nuclear facilities, for example by supplying S-400 systems. These could significantly complicate any Israeli pre-emptive attacks on these facilities. The main threat, however, is a scenario in which Russia provides Iran with key know-how for the development of missile technology capable of carrying nuclear warheads. There are also speculations that Iran could directly request nuclear material or other assistance from Russia to build up its nuclear programme. If Iran and Russia decide to cooperate on a nuclear basis in an effort to jointly counter the US and the West, the international community will have to find new ways to ensure compliance with international law. Moreover, if Tehran does indeed manage to come close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, it is highly likely that a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be launched by Israel. Iran has long threatened to wipe the Jewish state off the map, and a nuclear weapon in Iranian hands thus poses a direct threat to Israel’s existence.
Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would have political and security implications for the whole world and would inevitably undermine the already fragile power stability not only in the immediate region. Turkey or Saudi Arabia would very likely also decide to acquire a nuclear weapon in response. This could lead to a dangerous erosion of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, which has been a cornerstone of international security since the end of the Second World War.
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