In a rare public admission that is likely to unsettle regional powers in the Middle East and complicate the West’s calculations regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, Iranian Atomic Energy Programme Chief Mohamed Eslami confirmed that Iran has the technical capability to produce a nuclear bomb this week but that it has no immediate intention of doing so.
Eslami is the second prominent Iranian official in the last few weeks to affirm Iran’s technical ability to produce a nuclear weapon, emphasising at the same time that no political decision has been taken to do so.
On 17 July, Kamal Kharrazi, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that “Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb, but there has been no decision by Iran to build one.”
Such public claims by top officials are rare and most certainly received the green light from the Iranian leadership and the Revolutionary Guard, which oversees the Iranian nuclear programme.
In its latest report in May, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had 43.1 kg of uranium enriched to 60 per cent purity. About 25 kg of uranium enriched to 90 per cent is needed for a nuclear weapon.
There have been growing concerns in the West over the “breakout time” or the amount of time it would take Iran to amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.
In June, head of the IAEA Rafael Grossi said Iran could acquire such a quantity in a matter of weeks. However, possessing enough material did not mean Iran could manufacture a nuclear bomb, he added.
The US put the breakout time at about a year during the period in which the nuclear deal with Iran was intact. But Western intelligence has warned that time is running out to restore the deal before Iran’s programme reaches a point where it cannot be reversed.
Iran’s statement that it has enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb comes at a difficult time in the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the West. The negotiations have stalled since March amid differences and a volatile international environment caused by the Russian-Ukraine war, prompting Iran and the West to recalculate the pros and cons of re-joining the nuclear deal.
Recently, indirect negotiations between the US and Iran in Qatar ended without agreement. After the failed talks, Nasser Kanani, spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, tweeted that Iran had presented “its operational ideas and suggestions.”
But Robert Malley, US special envoy for Iran, said the likelihood of reviving the deal “diminishes by the day,” warning that the window is “closing quite rapidly” and “at some point I think it’ll become obvious to everyone that the deal is no longer available.”
Since former US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, Iran has ratcheted up its nuclear activity to worrying levels, limiting IAEA monitoring and failing to co-operate fully under its basic-safeguards obligations despite Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran to force it back to the negotiating table on US terms.
According to the West’s assessment, Iran’s dragging its feet on returning to the nuclear agreement is a sign that the Iranian leadership has not yet made up its mind about the benefits of returning.
On 22 July head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6 Richard Moore said he did not believe Iran wanted to reach a nuclear deal. “I don’t think the supreme leader of Iran wants to cut a deal,” he said, adding that he was “sceptical” of the Khamenei’s motives.
“I think the deal absolutely is on the table and the European powers and the US administration here are very, very clear on that, and I don’t think that the Chinese and Russians on this issue would block it. But I don’t think the Iranians want it,” Moore said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington.
Hopes for a return to the deal appear to be fading as US President Joe Biden vows to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, warning that his administration is “not going to wait forever” for a response from the Iranian leadership on a deal.
Yet, it is too early to conclude that the nuclear deal is dead. A European diplomat familiar with the negotiations showed some optimism.
“I don’t think there is a decision in Iran not to go back to the nuclear deal. I think that Tehran wants to negotiate from a position of strength to obtain more concessions in the coming days, hence the public declarations about its possession of the technical ability to produce a nuclear weapon,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Returning to the nuclear agreement is a matter of time, a matter of guarantees, and a matter of concessions. If the West and Tehran meet these conditions, the benefits of returning to the nuclear agreement outweigh its drawbacks for all sides concerned.”
In a message to Iran that time is running out to save the nuclear deal, Josep Borrell, the EU’s Foreign Policy chief, wrote in the UK Financial Times that the “maximum pressure” strategy has failed and calling on Tehran to accept the deal that is being offered.
“After 15 months of intense, constructive negotiations in Vienna and countless interactions with the JCPOA participants and the US, I have concluded that the space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted. I have now put on the table a text that addresses, in precise detail, the sanctions lifting as well as the nuclear steps needed to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” Borrell wrote, using the official name of the Iran nuclear deal.
“This text represents the best possible deal that I, as a facilitator of the negotiations, see as feasible. It is not a perfect agreement, but it addresses all essential elements and includes hard-won compromises by all sides. Decisions need to be taken now to seize this unique opportunity to succeed and to free up the great potential of a fully implemented deal. I see no other comprehensive or effective alternative within reach.”
Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, confirmed that Borrell had put forth a new proposal, adding that “we shared our proposed ideas, both on substance and form, to pave the way for a swift conclusion of the Vienna negotiations,” without giving any more details.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken backed the proposal from the EU aimed at salvaging the nuclear deal, saying that the US was “prepared to move forward on the basis of what’s been agreed” but that it was unclear if Iran was prepared to do the same.
During a press briefing at the UN, Blinken noted that “the EU has put forward the best proposal based on many, many months of discussions, negotiations, conversations.”
“It’s very consistent with something that they put forward in March that we’ve agreed to and that we would pursue it in March,” Blinken said. “But it remains to be seen whether Iran is willing and able to move forward.”
Borrell acknowledged that the deal remains politically polarising in Washington as the midterm elections approach and that it may not address all US concerns concerning Iran. He said that the EU shares concerns that go beyond the nuclear issue, such as human rights and Iran’s regional activities.
“We know, too, that in Tehran there are significant reservations over fully implementing a deal after the negative experience of recent years. The deal on the table reflects, however, the determination of all JCPOA participants to ensure its sustainability, including the commitment of President Joe Biden and US assurances in this regard. As a result, the deal is better protected from potential unilateral moves to undermine it,” Borrell said.
“It is now time for swift political decisions to conclude the Vienna negotiations… If the deal is rejected, we risk a dangerous nuclear crisis.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.