As Diplomacy Falters, Iran’s Nuclear Program Creeps Ahead

As Diplomacy Falters, Iran’s Nuclear Program Creeps Ahead

A nuclear-armed Iran, or even a threshold state, would provide a nuclear umbrella over the entire Iranian-led radical axis, accelerating destabilization in the region.


The May 22 assassination in Tehran of a key Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer, who reportedly was busy plotting attacks on Israelis abroad, is a reminder of the fact that the Iranian regime poses a clear and present danger to the security of Israelis, and the wider Middle East.

Seeking regional hegemony, and a great “Shiite revival,” the Islamist regime in Tehran has utilized its IRGC’s Quds Force, an elite, secretive international unit that traffics weapons, funds, and training to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, armed Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran is turning these entities into some of the most heavily armed non-state actors in the world, complete with arsenals of surface-to-surface firepower. Hezbollah’s inventory dwarfs the firepower of many standard armies.

The Quds Force actively plots attacks on Israeli targets, as well as threatening moderate Sunni states in the region, among them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Strategic targets of these countries, such as airports, oil refineries, and military bases come under routine attack.

But an even more significant threat—the most critical of them all—that emanates from Iran has all but vanished from the headlines. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Iranian nuclear program is not the gravest issue currently facing the Middle East (as well as constituting a potential flashpoint with global ramifications).

Yet that is exactly what Iran’s nuclear program is. It has become the elephant in the room: a problem too big to be discussed daily outside of defense establishments, and an issue that is falling between the cracks, subject to neither diplomatic solutions nor military operations. Instead, a creeping nuclear breakout is underway.

A nuclear-armed Iran, or even a threshold state, would provide a nuclear umbrella over the entire Iranian-led radical axis, accelerating destabilization in the region, emboldening Iran and its Islamist partners to step up attacks on Israel and Sunni states, and sparking a regional nuclear arms race in which Sunni states rush to obtain nuclear weapons, refusing to live under an Iranian nuclear shadow without a suitable reply.

With nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers led by the United States currently stuck, the Iranian nuclear program is hovering in a bizarre twilight zone, in a no-man's-land that is not subject to regular public discussion or significant international scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Iran is racing ahead. According to a recent statement by Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz, Iran already has 60 kilograms of uranium enriched to the 60 percent level, putting it just weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for its first bomb.

This does not mean that Iran is weeks away from having an operational nuclear weapon. Other aspects of the program, like building a nuclear warhead, learning how to place it on a missile, and completing the process to build a nuclear explosive mechanism appear to be frozen at this time.

These additional processes, collectively known as “the weapons group,” would need another year and a half to two years to reach fruition. But the uranium enrichment process is the most difficult aspect of building the bomb, and Iran’s nuclear scientists have all but mastered it.

Iran is building and installing centrifuges that enrich uranium much faster than its first-generation centrifuges did. Some of these new centrifuges have been placed in a recently built underground hall at the Natanz uranium site. A second site, in Fordow, also hosts advanced centrifuges, known as IR-6 type centrifuges.

According to Iranian state television, in March, the IRGC detected and foiled an Israeli sabotage plot to attack the site at Fordow, which is buried in a mountain.

According to international media reports, Natanz was attacked twice by sabotage operations, once in July 2020, and again in April 2021, with the second reported attack taking out Natanz’s centrifuges. In June, a mysterious blast targeted a centrifuge factory at Karaj, near Tehran.

If Israel is indeed conducting covert operations to attack Iran’s nuclear program, these are having a delaying influence, but Iran can and does bounce back, building back its program with new and improved uranium enrichment facilities.

With talks frozen, it seems that sabotage and Iranian determination are currently the only game in town.

Looking ahead, two main potential scenarios could play out.

The first is that the Biden administration is successful in its ability to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In light of Iran’s nuclear progress made since the Trump administration’s unilateral exit from the agreement in 2018, and the sunset clauses contained in the JCPOA that all expire between 2025 to 2031, leaving Iran to enrich as much uranium as it wants and to stockpile as much fissile material as it wants, reviving the 2015 deal seems like no more than a temporary reprieve, which does almost nothing to solve the fundamental issues of the Iranian nuclear program.

If an agreement is signed, Iran would fill its war chest with oil trade income, and funds from other international business transactions, and be able to inject its proxies like Hezbollah with new funds, further contributing to the conventional threat to Israel and regional security.

The path to conflict from this scenario seems short.

A second scenario could involve a formal collapse of talks between the United States and Iran. The talks are currently stuck on Iran’s demand to remove the IRGC from Washington’s foreign terror organization list, as well as additional Iranian demands.

This scenario could then develop into several follow-on scenarios.

The first would involve a renewed American maximum pressure campaign, designed to circumvent the diplomatic channel as a mechanism for controlling Iran’s nuclear program and to apply economic and diplomatic pressure, backed by the threat of military force.

However, the ability of the United States to recruit others in the world to this campaign seems limited. It is unclear if Europe would get on board, and it is clear that Russia and China would not (unlike the pre-JCPOA round of sanctions that led to the 2015 deal).

America’s determination to reinstate a military deterrent against Iran is also highly questionable. This is due to its formal decision to prioritize great power competition with Russia and China, and to deprioritize its Middle Eastern commitments, as the Afghanistan withdrawal and Iraqi drawdown demonstrate.

Therefore, a limited American pressure campaign seems more likely a fallout from the collapsed talks, combined with an Israeli military deterrent, and possibly, stepped up Israeli covert action.

This reality would contain no guarantees against an Iranian decision to break out to full nuclear weapons capability, should Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the IRGC, and the Iranian Supreme National Security Council so choose.

It is safe to assume that Israel has marked out red lines for itself on Iranian nuclear progress which, if triggered, would spark an Israeli aerial assault on key sites of the program.

That, in turn, would likely lead to full-scale conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and possibly with Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as Gazan terror factions.

This appeared to be the scenario drilled in the Chariots of War Israel Defense Forces exercise in May, the largest held by the Israeli military in decades.

Ultimately, Israel’s objective is to keep delaying the nuclear program until a fundamental change in the ideology of the Iran regime occurs, or the regime itself is replaced by a moderate successor.

Yaakov Lappin is the in-house analyst at the MirYam Institute.

Image: Reuters.