Iran’s nuclear breakout time has reached zero, but it is not clear how quickly it can assemble a nuclear weapon, a former UN inspector told Iran International.
In an interview on Wednesday, David Albright, founder and president of Institute for Science and International Security said the Islamic Republic has accumulated enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuckear weapon. He told Iran International's Fardad Farahzad, “Iran has reached this critical period where its breakout time is zero. And what that means is that now it has enough highly enriched uranium to fashion a nuclear weapon.”
However, assembling a nuclear weapon would take some additional time, Albright said and added, “But it may not be as long as some have argued. We don’t know how quickly Iran could make nuclear weapons today.”
While the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring Iran’s overt nuclear activities focused on uranium enrichment, the agency does not have full access to inspect every suspected military facility that might be engaged in weapons design and testing.
Albright, a physicist and an IAEA inspector in the 1990s, explained that the world does not know what kind of a nuclear device Iran would decide to make.
Head of IAEA Rafael Grossi (L) with chief of Iran's nuclear program Mohammad Eslmai in Tehran on March 5, 2022
“They may choose to make a crude nuclear explosive to detonate underground, or to deliver it crudely or through crude methods like truck or ship. That could happen over the course of several months, less than six months. They may want, on the other hand, to focus on just building a warhead for a ballistic missile; that could take longer, a year or two. So again, the critical thing is that they have reached the zero-breakout time,” he explained.
Referring to Iran’s clandestine AMAD nuclear program in the 2000s, Albright said the plan was to accumulate enough fissile material to build five bombs, but once the secret was disclosed in 2002, Tehran abandoned the scheme under great international pressure. “So, in a way it's closer to nuclear weapons now than it was in the height of its crash nuclear weapons program in the early 2000s. So, this is a major milestone,” the former IAEA inspector said.
Iran has demonstrated that it could advance quickly in the absence of international restrictions on its nuclear program, Albright said, referring to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, or any new version of it.
Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuge machines in an underground facility in 2021
In addition to Iran's ability to quickly resurrect and advance its program, the JCPOA is “is very time-bound,” he said, referring to the sunset clauses of the original agreement, adding, “It doesn't last very long, so it's a temporary fix-at best. And there are some problems in getting in that deal.”
To stop Iran at this juncture could also take another strategy Albright said – the strategy of increasing pressure on Tehran. “It's not the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign, it's much more. It would involve Europeans and the US and other allies working very closely together to increase pressure on Iran. It would involve stigmatizing Iran even more; like Russia's being stigmatized.”
Albright went on to say that a strategy of intense pressure would involve more support for Israel and other allied countries in the Middle East, “to push harder against Iran.”
He predicted that whether now or in the future the time will come for a tough pressure policy to stop the Islamic Republic from becoming a nuclear power.
“So, I think that's a path, and that's probably the path we're headed on. Maybe a nuclear deal could postpone this path, being launched for a few years perhaps. But there are real obstacles to getting that deal. And I think we are now headed into a period where pressure is going to increase on Iran.”