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Intel believes US, Iran return to JCPOA a near-certainty

IDF sees permanent ban on weapons-grade uranium as essential for Iran nuke deal

Military estimates Tehran is at least two years from an atomic bomb from the moment it decides to ‘break out,’ says Islamic Republic is desperate for a deal with US

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in an image released on November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)
Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, in an image released on November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Israeli Military Intelligence believes that a new nuclear agreement that prevents Iran from ever enriching uranium up to the 90 percent level needed for a nuclear weapon is both feasible and would alleviate some of Jerusalem’s primary concerns, The Times of Israel has learned.

This view, presented as part of the Israel Defense Forces’ annual intelligence assessment, comes as US President Joe Biden considers a return to the 2015 nuclear deal or, potentially, the negotiation of a new accord. The Israeli military, ToI has learned, regards an eventual US return to the deal as a near-certainty.

Throughout his campaign, Biden maintained that he would return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran returned to compliance with the agreement, as a jumping-off point to additional talks with Tehran.

After Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign of financial sanctions, Iran began regularly violating its terms, enriching uranium to far greater levels and storing much more of it than permitted under the JCPOA. Last month, Iran also announced it was beginning research into uranium metal, a component needed for a nuclear weapon’s detonator, which it is barred from acquiring under the 2015 nuclear deal.

At this stage, the Israeli military assesses that Iran is still roughly two years away from being able to create a working, deliverable nuclear weapon — roughly the same timeframe it estimated last year — despite the Islamic Republic’s stockpiling and enrichment.

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, Jan. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

Critically, this two-year estimate would require Iran to decide to press ahead full-steam with creating a nuclear weapon, in violation of not only the 2015 nuclear accord but also the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of which it is a signatory. As of this month, the IDF does not believe that Tehran has made such a decision and instead hopes to reenter negotiations with the United States regarding a return to the JCPOA by both countries.

Though IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said last month that he had ordered fresh plans for military action against Iran to halt its nuclear program, there is not yet a rush to act on those plans as Iran has not yet decided to press ahead with a “breakout” to an atomic bomb, according to the IDF’s assessments.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank’s annual conference on January 26, 2021. (Screen capture/INSS)

Since Biden’s inauguration, the US and Iran have been engaged in a game of chicken over who would take the initial step toward returning to the deal, with Iran demanding the US ease its sanctions first and the US insisting Iran halt its uranium enrichment.

Israel also does not believe this game of chicken is harmless. While the uranium it has enriched and stockpiled can be removed, the knowledge Tehran gains from researching uranium metal can’t.

“Although agreements can prevent the collection of fissile material, some research and development projects are irreversible,” an Israeli military official told reporters this week.

The Israeli military believes that regardless of who takes the first step, the US and Iran will eventually re-enter the agreement, describing it as effectively a foregone conclusion, despite ardent Israeli opposition. Biden has brought into his administration some of the pact’s architects, who see it as the most feasible way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and his White House has not wavered on its intention to return to the JCPOA.

Critics of the agreement — Israel, a number of Sunni Arab states, certain American lawmakers, among others — see it as paving the way to a nuclear-armed Iran due to the agreement’s so-called “sunset clauses,” which dictate that at certain points — the latest being 2031 — the sanctions and embargoes on Iran would be lifted, allowing it to enrich as much uranium, to whatever level, it desires. And along the way, Tehran would be able to get more money to send to its proxies across the region.

Iran would technically still be barred from creating a nuclear weapon under the deal and the NPT, but these restrictions would lack the sanctions teeth currently provided by the JCPOA.

Despite its opposition to an American return to the JCPOA, Military Intelligence believes it would be better served focusing on getting the best deal possible by presenting the United States with intelligence and evidence showing how Iran used the money it received as part of the JCPOA from 2015 until Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 — funding it sent to terror groups and proxy militias throughout the region.

Though the Israeli military disagrees with Biden’s intention to return to the JCPOA, it does appreciate that the incoming administration is made up of long-time national security professionals with deep understanding of the pertinent issues, allowing for an easier exchange of information and positions, instead of the less experienced outsiders from Trump’s White House, who often needed to have things explained to them.

According to the IDF’s assessments, Iran is currently in dire straits, having seen a massive outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and struggling to keep afloat a failing economy that was all but destroyed by American sanctions in recent years.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, chief of Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman told reporters this week that despite Iran’s severe economic situation, “it has not slowed down its nuclear program and has even stepped up some of its efforts on this matter.”

“In its current situation, Iran sees a [nuclear] deal as its only way out of its crisis and it is therefore heading as quickly as possible to the deal it signed in 2015,” Hayman added.

The IDF’s bottom-line demand of a ban on Iranian enrichment of uranium to 90 percent appears to contradict Israel’s previously reported demands for a future nuclear deal, which according to Channel 12 news included a complete end to all Iranian uranium enrichment — at any level — as well as halting the production of advanced centrifuges; ending support for terror groups in the region, foremost Lebanon’s Hezbollah; withdrawing its military presence from Iraq, Syria and Yemen; stopping all terror activity against Israeli targets overseas; and granting full access to the International Atomic Energy Agency on all aspects of its nuclear program.

These demands, which Mossad director Yossi Cohen was reportedly tasked with delivering to Washington, were widely perceived as being either unrealistic or, more likely, as a negotiating position well beyond what Israel actually anticipated would be included in the agreement.

Two years, not a few weeks

Military Intelligence’s assessment that Iran is some two years from creating a working nuclear weapon would appear to contradict comments made recently by both US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and IDF chief Kohavi that appeared to indicate Tehran was potentially weeks away from such a situation, but this is in fact an issue of terms.

The remarks by Blinken and Kohavi referred solely to the amount of time it would take for Iran to amass the highly enriched uranium needed to produce a bomb, not the total amount of time it would take to manufacture a working, deliverable weapon.

A lift truck carries a cylinder containing uranium hexafluoride gas for the purpose of injecting the gas into centrifuges in Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, November 6, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

According to IDF assessments, Iran currently has 3,000 kilograms of uranium enriched to roughly four percent and 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is enough material to produce at least two nuclear bombs. (In order to amass 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90%, you need 220 kilograms enriched to 20%, which requires 1,300 kilograms enriched to 4%.)

These IDF figures are roughly in line with those of the IAEA, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program.

According to Military Intelligence estimates, if Iran decided to “break out” to a nuclear weapon, within four months it would have sufficient 90%-enriched uranium to produce a bomb.

However, the IDF believes that it would take Tehran 21 months to create the detonator mechanism needed to cause a chain reaction and to install a warhead onto a missile — which it could do at the same time as it enriched the uranium — and at least three more months to properly test the weapon before it would be ready, meaning a total of 24 months before such a bomb could be used.

Iran’s uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, which reprocesses uranium ore concentrate into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is then taken to Natanz and fed into the centrifuges for enrichment, March 30, 2005. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

It is these three areas — the uranium enrichment, development of the detonator and development of the missile — that the IDF would have to successfully destroy or deactivate in order to halt Iran’s nuclear weapon program. Such a strike would require the advanced capabilities needed to hit heavily defended sites, the intelligence information to know where and how to conduct the operation, and international support, according to Military Intelligence assessments.

Unlike in Israel’s previous attacks on nuclear programs in the region — Iraq’s in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007 — which were effectively completed with a single strike on a single reactor, an attack on Iran would be far more complex, requiring a coordinated effort to destroy the many facilities that make up the Iranian nuclear weapon program, which are far better defended than their Iraqi and Syrian counterparts were.

In light of this, it would be extremely difficult for Israel to conduct such an operation unilaterally, against the wishes of the United States government.

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