“Our nuclear program is advancing as planned and time is on our side,” an unnamed Iranian official bluntly told Reuters on May 5. “Oil sales have doubled,” noted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last Monday. In short, since the election of Joe Biden, Tehran has not only made impressive strides toward a nuclear weapons capability but repaired much of the financial damage done by U.S. sanctions.
It’s plain to see the clerical regime is in no rush to negotiate a revised nuclear deal. What’s the hurry when both oil exports and enriched uranium stockpiles are surging? But the risk here is not just that Tehran keeps stalling. It is that protracted negotiations may provide cover for a nuclear breakout—that is, the production of enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more bombs.
How Biden Let It Happen
The Biden administration has a standard response when reporters ask why Iran is enriching uranium to higher and higher levels or deploying more advanced centrifuges: It’s all Donald Trump’s fault. Tehran’s provocations are just an ongoing response to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
A bit of history shows this is a hollow excuse. Before Biden won the 2020 election, the clerical regime made cautious and incremental moves on the nuclear front. Sensing Biden’s avid interest in restoring the JCPOA, the regime in Tehran began to test him. Would he stay at the table and keep relaxing sanctions enforcement even as the clerical regime ramped up its nuclear program? He would.
On the one hand, this was a sharp negotiating tactic. Nuclear advances are bargaining chips Tehran can trade for American concessions. Yet taken together, these advances are also positioning Iran for a nuclear breakout.
In January 2021, Iran reactivated its fortified underground enrichment plant at Fordow and began enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. That February, it ended International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring at sites associated with certain nuclear infrastructure. Then, under a dubious civilian pretext, Tehran produced uranium metal, a sensitive material used in the core of atomic bombs.
In April 2021, Iran breached unofficial Western red lines by enriching uranium to 60 percent—highly enriched uranium that, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, is itself technically usable in a crude nuclear weapon. Tehran did all this despite international safeguards at the above-ground Natanz pilot enrichment plant—essentially rubbing the act in the world’s face—and used centrifuge arrangements that look to experts like practice for breakout.
By December 2021, the regime had used for the first time hundreds of its fastest IR-6 centrifuges at Fordow, the likely model of choice for a sprint to nuclear weapons. Iran now possesses more than 2,200 advanced centrifuges, compared to some 1,200 machines in 2015, at least 500 of which are the more productive IR-6 models.
Iran also took steps to fortify its enrichment supply chain after alleged foreign sabotage. It relocated two centrifuge manufacturing and assembly facilities underneath mountains—one near the Natanz enrichment plants and another in a tunnel complex at Esfahan—where they are invulnerable to military strikes.
Since February 2021, IAEA inspectors have been unable to monitor how many advanced centrifuges Tehran has made—meaning the regime could be squirrelling away untold quantities at a secret location. Maintaining such an inventory is critical, since, using existing enriched uranium stocks, Iran would need only 650 IR-6 machines at a clandestine facility to enrich uranium to 90 percent, the ideal purity level for nuclear weapons.
Thus, all the necessary elements have aligned for the Islamic Republic to move for nuclear weapons: reduced international monitoring, substantially improved atomic assets that are increasingly hardened against aerial strikes, an absence of international penalties, a reviving economy, and brutal ultra-hardliners in charge of the government who might be eager to go nuclear. The help of China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and others, who would continue to buy goods and oil, albeit at a discount, might convince the regime that it can weather inevitable Western sanctions against a breakout.
How Breakout Could Happen
As part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, known as the Amad Plan, Tehran sought to build an initial five nuclear weapons and develop the ability to conduct an underground demonstration test. While it is unlikely that Iran would opt to demonstrate a crude nuclear weapon based on 60-percent enriched uranium, it has technically amassed enough of that material for one bomb. Overall, the regime may have enough low-enriched and high-enriched uranium that if further enriched would yield sufficient material for five or more atomic weapons. Unhindered by the threat of American military intervention, Tehran might opt to cross the nuclear threshold.
If Iran dashed to nuclear weapons, it would likely pursue weapons-grade enrichment in either a hidden facility or a known, heavily fortified one. It could obstruct IAEA access to its declared facilities at Natanz and/or Fordow and move existing enriched uranium stocks from one or both to an undisclosed site. A clandestine enrichment plant might be at a military site and highly fortified against prying satellites, and potentially, air strikes. The IAEA would sound an alarm about potential diversion, but Western powers may not have reliable information about the location of a hidden facility.
Iran could also opt to centralize its enriched uranium at Fordow, where the regime is enriching uranium to 20 percent in cascades that it could quickly reconfigure to make weapons-grade material. Fordow is fortified against all but so-called “bunker-busting bombs,” which only the United States possesses. The IAEA would report the activity at Fordow, but with force as one of few options to prevent a breakout, Washington might accept the breakout as a fait accompli.
A nuclear breakout is not the same as having a functional weapon, although once a proliferator has weapons-grade uranium, preventing weaponization must happen quickly. Tehran could finalize a weapon at a site adjacent to its enrichment facility, a process likely to require several months, given what is known about Iran’s weaponization progress since 2003. Incorporating an atomic weapon on a missile would take substantially longer.
Meanwhile, foreign powers would waver about what to do. The U.N. would convene meeting after meeting, demanding Iran grant the IAEA access to suspect sites. But gone are the days of unanimous U.N. Security Council action—such as that seen in response to North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test or against the first revelations of Iran’s clandestine enrichment program in 2002.
In the end, a U.S. president could be left with the undesirable choice of conducting military strikes, possibly with Israeli help, or accepting a nuclear Iran.
The Path Forward
President Biden can start by declaring the nuclear talks dead. The JCPOA never did more than postpone the inevitable reckoning. The deal loosens restrictions on Iranian enrichment starting in 2024, which would only increase the risk of breakout.
Instead, the administration should announce that it will begin a zero-tolerance campaign of sanctioning state and private buyers of Iranian oil. The administration will need to alert the shipping industry that transporting Iran’s oil will once again be subject to swift penalties.
Next, Western powers must snap back into place the previous U.N. sanctions resolutions on Iran that were lifted by the JCPOA and use them as a basis to penalize Chinese and Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear, missile, and military programs. The further Iran progresses, the more they must tighten the economic noose. Thankfully, the Iranian economy remains vulnerable to renewed pressure despite oil sales.
At the IAEA Board of Governors, which next meets in June, Washington and its European allies should spearhead a resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear advances. The agency’s director general is also due to report that Iran has not been cooperating with a four-year IAEA inquiry into Tehran’s illicit nuclear work. A two-thirds vote of the board is needed to pass censure, so there is not a moment to lose in corralling votes.
Washington must also re-establish a credible threat of military strikes using deep-penetrating bombs should Iran attempt to divert nuclear assets.
The Islamic Republic’s international language is aggression, expansion, and provocation, which can only be countered via pressure, containment, and deterrence. It is time the Biden administration accept that its policies have not worked. The president must turn the tables before Iran goes too far.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow on nonproliferation issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.