Iran on the verge of getting an atomic bomb, but it could still choose to stop
Iran is at a technical stage in the production of enriched uranium which could allow it to build its first nuclear warhead. The country has also developed – and launched for the first time – a solid-fuel space launcher that could serve as an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The stepping stones are in place for Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold and join North Korea as a “rogue” state with atomic weapons.
The administration of President Joe Biden is working to bring Iran back to compliance with the 2015 agreement limiting the development of the country’s nuclear weapons. Ultimately, it’s up to the Tehran regime to make a choice. Go nuclear, or not.
It is not a given that Iranian leaders will choose nuclearization. There is a precedent for a country to develop all key technologies for atomic weapons and always opt not to align them. In the late 1960s, Japan faced the same choice Iran faces today… and finally said no to nuclear weapons.
“Iran could end up like North Korea with a growing nuclear arsenal, but if we’re lucky it might prefer to look more like Japan, happy with the capacity of its back pocket,” said Jeffrey Lewis, arms control expert at Middlebury. Institute for International Studies in California.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the agreement that President Barack Obama’s administration negotiated with Iran, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union in 2015 – capped Iran’s nuclear weapons development in exchange for economic relief. punishments.
The JCPOA was functioning when, in 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the deal as part of a broader Trump administration attack on arms control regimes and the diplomatic legacy of ‘Obama.
Trump reimposed the sanctions on Iran that Obama had lifted. With the JCPOA slowly collapsing, Iran has resumed work on its nuclear weapons. In early January, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announcement that the country’s scientists had enriched the uranium to 20 percent. This is an enrichment step below what is necessary to produce military grade uranium.
The JCPAO allows Iran to enrich uranium to more than four percent, a level sufficient to power a nuclear power plant.
A few weeks later, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps spear its first Zuljanah space launcher, an 84-foot three-stage rocket with a new solid fuel engine in its first and second stages and a liquid fuel engine in its third stage.
The rocket can carry a payload of 500 pounds up to 310 miles, according to the Iranian government.
If you curved the Zuljanah’s path, aiming for distance rather than height, you could carry a one-ton warhead up to 3,100 miles, Lewis estimated. An armed Zuljanah could strike targets as far away as China and the UK.
The enrichment move and the launch of Zuljanah together constitute a naked attempt by officials in Tehran to leverage their emerging nuclear technology to ease sanctions. “Our measures are fully reversible if all comply fully with them,” Zarif said.
In other words, Iran has signaled that it will halt its nuclearization efforts … if the United States lifts the sanctions of the Trump era.
The position of the Biden administration is clear. He wants to restore the JCPOA and prevent Iran from obtaining an atomic bomb. “We would like to make sure to restore some of the parameters and constraints of the program that have disappeared over the past two years,” noted Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
But Biden wants Tehran to take the first step. “If Iran comes back into full compliance with obligations under the JCPOA (…) the United States would do the same, then use it as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that would also meet other matters of concern, “Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said friday.
Think of it as a diplomatic chicken game. Which party will act first and risk weakening its negotiating position?
It is not inconceivable that Iran would move first.
Countries rarely abandon, or even freeze, major new strategic technologies once they have developed them. This is why North Korea, a nuclear state since 2006, has proven to be such a thorny diplomatic problem for the rest of the world.
There are exceptions, of course. One of them, Japan, could shed light on the current crisis.
Japan, the first and so far the only target of an atomic attack, may seem an unlikely nuclear power. But in the late 1960s, Tokyo considered developing atomic weapons.
Technically, it wouldn’t have been difficult. Japan already had all the key technologies, the fruit of a strong domestic nuclear and rocket industry. But there were, and still are, strong cultural and political impulses against atomic weapons in Japan.
Moreover, as long as Japan and the United States are close allies, American nuclear deterrence helps protect Japan.
Tokyo has decided not to go nuclear. But every few years, the nuclear issue reappears in Japanese media – a healthy reminder that politics, not technology, keeps Japan out of the atomic camp.
There are reasons to hope that Iran follows the same path as Japan. Despite having developed all the key technologies for a nuclear weapon, Tehran could stop before building one.
Switching to nuclear so late in the atomic age can have profound and lasting economic effects, as the world isolates and contains rogue atomic powers through permanent sanctions.
Look what happened to North Korea. Yes, the Pyongyang regime has nuclear weapons. But it is also a pariah state with minimal access to global markets.
As long as Iran shuts down before full nuclearization, it can one day hope to join the global economy and end up more like Japan than North Korea.
There are indications that key members of the Iranian regime favor the former. Consider that Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, ordered the military to limit the range of its most powerful rockets to just 1,250 miles – and also ordered the IRGC to deploy its new solid fuel engine. in a space launcher rather than a weapon.
As with Japan, it might be enough for Iran to can develop nuclear weapons. If Tehran is inclined to trade warheads for economic benefits, then the Biden administration can afford to stand firm and wait for Iran to first come into compliance with the 2015 accord.
After all, Tehran – jealously eyeing Tokyo’s trade ties – might actually prefer compliance.