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What Iran stockpiling uranium for a nuclear bomb is really about

It’s scary, but nowhere near as scary as it could be.

A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows an Iranian flag in Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, during an official ceremony to kick-start works on a second reactor at the facility. 
Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iran may be getting close to having enough nuclear material to make a single bomb if it chooses to do so. Although experts estimate it would still take Iran roughly a year to actually build a bomb (which it has long said it does not want to do), it’s still a worrying development.

It’s also a predictable one — in fact, it’s what many experts warned was likely to happen if President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency — the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog — wrote in a confidential report seen by the Associated Press that Iran has nearly tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, from 820 pounds last November to 2,250 pounds (just over a ton) in February. That confirms previous statements by the organization earlier this year.

To make a weapon, the Arms Control Association estimates Iran would need more than 2,300 pounds of uranium enriched to over 90 percent purity. That’s the level required for weapons-grade uranium. Based on the IAEA’s report, Iran’s stockpile is enriched to under 5 percent — far away from that level.

In other words, Iran has almost enough of the raw material needed to potentially make a bomb, but that material would still need to be enriched to a far higher level than it currently is to make an effective explosive. And that enrichment process takes time.

Experts say it would take Iran about a year to create a nuclear bomb and longer to fit it on a missile capable of hitting the US. What’s more, inspectors could quickly determine if the Islamic Republic changed its mind and furiously pursued a weapon.

So if you’re worried that Iran is about to have a nuclear weapon in the next days or weeks, don’t fret. It’s not. We’re still a long way away from that point, and it’s far from inevitable that we will end up there.

What this development does underscore, though, is the provocative steps Tehran is taking to counter Trump’s policies.

“It’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the US withdrawal from the Iran deal,” says Eric Brewer, who worked on Iran in Trump’s National Security Council.

Iran is following the US out of the nuclear deal

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal capped the amount of enriched uranium Iran could have to under 660 pounds and restricted it from enriching that uranium above 3.67 percent purity.

That’s “the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants,” as the Washington Post explains. Tehran has long insisted it doesn’t want and isn’t trying to build a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear program is solely intended for peaceful purposes, like nuclear power and medical research. That’s why capping its uranium enrichment to that level made sense: If you only want to use it for peaceful purposes, as you say, why would you need to enrich it further?

But in May 2018, Trump announced he was withdrawing the US from the nuclear pact and, shortly after, reimposed strict economic sanctions on Iran that the Obama administration had lifted as part of the agreement.

That effectively ended the deal, and Iran announced in May 2019 “that it would reduce compliance with its obligations every 60 days until its demands on sanctions relief are met,” the Arms Control Association’s Kelsey Davenport writes.

And in January 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told NPR that all limits on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium were officially “suspended.” Just a few weeks later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the same outlet that Zarif was just “blustering.”

Clearly, based on this latest IAEA report, Zarif wasn’t blustering at all.

What he’s likely doing, experts say, is trying to spook the Trump administration and America’s European allies enough to force Trump to reconsider his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Why Iran is stockpiling uranium

The economic sanctions the Trump administration reimposed on Iran have hit its economy hard, strapping the regime of cash to fund the various militia groups it backs in the Middle East, build its growing missile program, or even adequately respond to the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

Iran would really, really like those sanctions to go away. The most obvious way to do that would be to make a new deal with the US. But the regime also doesn’t want to look like it’s caving to the United States, its longtime nemesis. Which means the only card it can play is to make it seem like it’s close to making a nuke to scare America into negotiating on Iran’s terms, not America’s.

The problem is that it’s unlikely to work. The Trump administration seems hell-bent on maintaining its maximum-pressure policy toward Iran, come what may.

So it seems Washington and Tehran will remain in a dangerous stalemate until the other blinks. And if, in the meantime, Iran continues enriching its uranium to higher and higher levels, that will put it closer and closer to getting the bomb.

“That breakout timeline is going to continue to shrink unless Iran stops its enrichment activities,” Brewer warned.

That could then lead the US to opt for even harsher measures to try to deter Iran — like a military strike on its nuclear facilities.

Which means that, yet again, the US and Iran could be facing a dangerous military confrontation — the exact scenario many experts warned could very likely happen if Trump withdrew from the Iran deal.

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