Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Iran now possesses significant stocks of highly-enriched uranium which are theoretically sufficient for creating a nuclear weapon, if they would be enriched further, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog warned in a report published on Wednesday.
According to the report, Tehran now has around 55.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60%, and could conclude its enrichment to the weapons-grade 90% level within a couple of weeks. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes that it would not be able to register this process has started until two or three days have passed.
In the previous quarterly report, Iran had 12.4 kilograms less of 60-percent enriched uranium in its stockpiles, estimated as insufficient for a nuclear weapon. The latest figure represents a dangerous threshold for Iran to pass after it stopped complying with the limiting terms of the lapsed 2015 nuclear treaty, which aimed to ensure Tehran would only enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
Natural uranium consists of less than 1% of radioactive isotope uranium-235, and is mostly stable uranium-238. In order to be used as an energy source or as a weapon, uranium needs to be enriched in centrifuges, which separate the heavier, stable isotope, from the lighter, radioactive one.
The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran, the US, remaining permanent UN Security Council members, Germany and the EU, and the deal aimed to provide Iran with sufficient resources to run a civilian nuclear programme, while preventing it from developing weapons-grade stockpiles. In return for limiting its nuclear programme, Tehran was provided with relief from international sanctions.
The treaty allowed Iran to have a stockpile of up to 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5% – so-called low-enriched uranium – which can be used in fuel rods for nuclear power plants or for research reactors.
Despite Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA provisions, former US president Donald Trump unilaterally exited the treaty and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, which eventually responded with a series of increasing breaches of treaty’s limitations, while still allowing IAEA inspectors access to its facilities.
One of the milestone breaches was resumption of production of medium-enriched uranium, up to 20%, which is a key step in developing weapons-grade fissile material. Uranium enrichment is not a linear process – reaching 20% enrichment represents approximately 90% of the effort to produce weapons-grade material. Once 60% enrichment is achieved, the process of producing weapons-grade material is nearly complete.
Use of force
While new US President Joe Biden initiated fresh talks with original JCPOA signatories to revive the lapsed deal, negotiations with Tehran stalled as a hardline conservetive cleric Ebrahim Raisi replaced moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president last year.
A major problem in the ongoing negotiations has been the discovery of uranium particles at three undeclared sites. Some western powers suspect Tehran had been running a secret nuclear programme, halted in 2003, and most of the undeclared sites appear to date before 2003. While Iran called for IAEA to abandon the investigation into the issue, claiming it was resolved with the signing of JCPOA, the nuclear watchdog insists the issue is unrelated to the nuclear treaty, and falls under the provisions of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
As negotiations appeared mostly stalled, while Tehran was continuing to enrich uranium and enlarge its existing stockpile, Israel began issuing indirect warnings that it would not allow its regional rival to develop nuclear weapons.
In June this year, Washington and Tel Aviv made a joint pledge to “deny nuclear arms to Iran”, with Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signing the so-called “Jerusalem Declaration”. While the wording of the pledge shied away from threatening use of force against Tehran, Lapid stressed that the “only way to stop a nuclear Iran is if Iran knows the free world will use force”.