How fast could Iran build a nuclear weapon? U.S. officials believe Iran is inching closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb and could be just a few weeks away from reaching full breakout capabilities. In a press briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that Iran’s proximity to acquiring sufficient fissile material for one nuclear bomb had shortened significantly from about a year to weeks, concerning the White House.
The nuclear breakout period refers to the time needed to produce fissile materials for the bomb, but not necessarily the bomb itself. To achieve a fully functioning nuclear arsenal, Iran must first obtain the technology and materials to build the core of the weapon and to attach it to the warhead of a missile. However, considering Iran’s history of dodging inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and non-compliance to treaty obligations, the regime could be much closer to achieving a robust nuclear arsenal than assumed.
In the latest IAEA quarterly publication issued in March, inspectors’ findings amplified the warning that Iran is expanding its arsenal materials exponentially. The report found that Iran has nearly 33 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 60% purity. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran is just 7 kilograms short of producing enough weapons-grade nuclear fuel for a weapon.
The Biden administration’s annual report on arms control and nonproliferation compliance issued in late April also discussed these alarming findings. The State Department recognized Iran’s continuous dodging of international inspectors and concealment of its nuclear expansions in at least four locations. According to the report, undeclared nuclear activities and experiments with a uranium metal disc are among the issues that “raise significant questions of what Iran may be trying to hide, and whether Iran is in compliance with its safeguards obligations today.”
Despite the State Department’s admission of Iran’s copious compliance failures, the White House remains fervent that re-entering a joint nuclear agreement with Iran is a top priority. Under the Obama era 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) guidelines, Tehran was granted sanctions relief in exchange for some cutbacks to its nuclear program. Tehran frequently defied its obligations before the U.S. withdrew from the arrangement in 2018 under the Trump administration. In addition to preventing IAEA officials from inspecting designated sites, Iran expanded its ballistic and cruise missile development programs.
The current nuclear negotiations in Vienna have not slowed the rate of Iran’s nuclear expansion. Since the talks commenced, Iran has continued to build up its uranium enrichment and fissile materials – critical components in a nuclear program. Iran has ramped up its deployment of more powerful centrifuge models, increasing the concentration of raw materials needed to produce a weapon. According to Iran Watch, these new models have increased the size and enrichment level of Iran’s uranium stockpiled after being installed in production lines.
Iran’s enlarged and potentially underreported uranium enrichment levels and lack of inspector access to its weapons development sites indicate the rogue state’s official breakout time is looming. While it seems inevitable they could have the fissile material in a few weeks; it’s unclear how long it would take them to make a usable warhead. A nuclear threshold state does not necessarily have the capabilities or aim to acquire a nuclear weapon, but Tehran’s clandestine efforts reveal a lack of peaceful intent. Therefore, their road to a bomb is likely imminent.
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in a wide range of publications including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.