June 25, 2024

IntelBrief: The Gathering Threat from Iran’s Nuclear Program

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran is rapidly advancing to the status of “nuclear threshold state” based on its growing stockpile of uranium enriched to levels close to weapons grade.
  • Iran appears to seek additional leverage to deter Israeli and U.S. military action against Iran itself or against its “Axis of Resistance” partners in the region.
  • Iran’s stated plans to expand uranium enrichment activity at the hardened Fordow site, coupled with other reports and statements, is raising alarms in Washington and Tel Aviv that Iran intends to develop actual nuclear weapons.
  • Iran revealed its enrichment expansion plans following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) censure of Iranian non-cooperation on June 5.

Western, regional, and global experts are becoming alarmed by new information and statements by Iranian officials about Iran’s nuclear program intentions and capabilities. Iran’s plans to expand uranium enrichment at the hardened Fordow site, its possible new research on nuclear weapons design, and statements by high-ranking officials suggest Iran might intend to move beyond “threshold nuclear weapons status” to developing actual nuclear weapons.

There is no consensus among experts and global officials about Iran’s possible motivations for its nuclear program acceleration, which has had consequences. On June 5, the IAEA Board of Governors formally censured Iran, adopting a resolution citing the “continued failure by Iran to provide the necessary, full and unambiguous co-operation” with the IAEA’s oversight teams. U.S. officials had sought to persuade their main allies on the issue, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to avoid a censure motion in order not to further inflame regional tensions already heightened by the war in Gaza. However, U.S. officials were persuaded to go along with the censure based on the accumulation of evidence that Iran is violating its agreements to cooperate with the IAEA.

The war in Gaza has brought Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” partners and Iran itself, into conflict with Israel and U.S. forces in the region. Iranian leaders might be anticipating a broader U.S., Israeli, and allied conflict with the Axis of Resistance, and they perhaps see expanding Iran’s nuclear program as adding leverage to their efforts to deter concerted action against Iran and the Axis partners. Appearing to suggest that motive, in early May, a top national security advisor to Supreme Leader and former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi stated: “We have no decision to build a nuclear bomb, but should Iran’s existence be threatened, there will be no choice but to change our military doctrine [to include developing a nuclear weapon].”

In recent years, Iranian officials have stressed rulings by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and endorsed by the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that it is forbidden for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Yet, the deterioration of Iran’s relations with the West since the Trump Administration withdrew from the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2018, and particularly since the Gaza war broke out on October 7, appears to have caused Iranian leaders to rethink any ironclad prohibitions on developing nuclear weapons.

Iran’s stated shifts on nuclear weapons doctrine have been made more alarming by concrete, observable expansions of its uranium enrichment program. In particular, Iran is undertaking a major increase of enrichment activities in its most heavily protected nuclear facility at Fordow. In private messages to the IAEA in mid-June, Iran’s atomic energy organization said Fordow was being outfitted with nearly 1,400 new centrifuges, machines used to make enriched uranium, according to two European diplomats briefed on the reports. The expansion will triple the site’s production of enriched uranium and give Tehran new options for quickly assembling a nuclear arsenal if it chooses to, according to confidential documents and analysis by weapons experts. Iran chose to disclose its plans after the IAEA censure of its nuclear defiance on June 5. An Iranian spokesperson confirmed the linkage of the Fordow expansion to the censure, stating: “In this instance, in response to the Board of Governors’ unnecessary, unwise, and hasty resolution, Iran has officially communicated its decision [to add centrifuges at Fordow] to the IAEA.”

Not only will Iran be increasing the number of centrifuges at Fordow, but it will also be installing equipment that is far more capable than the machines that now make most of Iran’s enriched uranium. At Fordow, only newer-model machines, known as IR-6s, are to be installed, reports show, a substantial upgrade from the IR-1 centrifuges currently in use there. The upgrades will nearly quadruple Fordow’s capacity. Within a month after becoming fully operational, Fordow’s IR-6s will be able to generate enough weapons-grade (90 percent enriched) uranium for five nuclear bombs. Although it is the smaller of Iran’s two uranium enrichment facilities, Fordow is regarded as particularly significant because its subterranean location makes it nearly invulnerable to airstrikes. U.S. forces might have the capability to destroy the facility, but Israel may not. The Fordow facility is also symbolically important because the plant there had ceased making enriched uranium entirely under the terms of the JCPOA. Iran resumed making the nuclear fuel there shortly after the Trump administration withdrew from the accord.

Iran has also disclosed plans to expand production at its main enrichment plant near the city of Natanz – a facility that Israeli leaders have reportedly eyed for a potential strike to try to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s plans for the Natanz facility call for the addition of thousands of centrifuge machines of a different type, known as the IR-2M. Nuclear proliferation experts calculated the upgrades would increase Natanz’s overall capacity to enrich uranium by 35 percent. Still, Iran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium - at any site - contains a maximum purity of 60 percent - far more than is allowed under the JCPOA but still short of weapons-grade. On the other hand, increasing purity from 60 percent to 90 percent takes little extra enrichment work input.

Perhaps even more worrisome for global officials are reports that Iran might be reviving efforts it undertook prior to 2003 to research designs for a nuclear explosive mechanism. A working nuclear weapon requires an explosive device to detonate the necessary quantity of weapons-grade uranium. In late June, press reports indicated that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies had uncovered information about a computer modeling program Iran has acquired that could be used to assist in developing nuclear weapons. However, the purpose of the program remains unclear, with officials reportedly split on whether it is innocuous or it indicates Iran wants to move forward to construct a nuclear weapon. Even if Iran were to try to construct a nuclear device, Iran is believed to still be at least 18 months away from being able to develop a nuclear warhead capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to likely targets.

It is unclear how any new Iranian computer modeling might differ from the work Iran did prior to 2003 to calculate and design the technical processes needed to develop a nuclear explosive device. Iran suspended its nuclear explosive research at that time out of concern that the George W. Bush Administration might move against Iran in addition to invading Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, and the earlier U.S. move into Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, were both consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda. Still, a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in mid-June told reporters: “We do not see indications that Iran is currently undertaking the key activities that would be necessary to produce a testable nuclear device. And we don’t believe that the Supreme Leader has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge Iran suspended or stopped at the end of 2003…That said, we remain deeply concerned with Iran’s nuclear activities and will continue to vigilantly monitor them.”

In the context of significantly heightened regional tensions, including a virtual state of war between Israel, the United States, and other partners and Iran’s Axis of Resistance, significant Iranian nuclear advances will encourage those in Israel and the West who advocate military action against Iran and its nuclear program. To that extent, Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program might have the opposite effect of what Tehran intends, bringing the country closer, not further, to outright conflict with the United States.