Israel said to fear restored Iran deal will leave breakout time of only a few months

‘Better to have a distance of a few months and not just weeks,’ US sources quoted as saying; 2015 pact envisioned Tehran would need a year to amass enough material for bomb

FILE -- This Oct. 27, 2004 file photo, shows the interior of the Arak heavy water production facility in Arak, 360 kms southwest of Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Fars News Agancy, File)
FILE -- This Oct. 27, 2004 file photo, shows the interior of the Arak heavy water production facility in Arak, 360 kms southwest of Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Fars News Agancy, File)

Israel fears that reviving the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers may leave Tehran only a few months away from having enough fissile material for an atomic bomb, Israeli television reported Saturday.

The Kan public broadcaster did not specify who in Israel was concerned by the possibility that Iran’s so-called breakout time would be significantly shorter under a restored nuclear agreement. But American sources quoted in the report appeared to acknowledge such a prospect.

“It is better to have a distance of a few months and not just weeks, as would happen if no agreement is signed,” the sources said.

The original deal aimed to keep Iran at least a year away from amassing enough material for a nuclear weapon.

The Kan report came days after US officials told The Wall Street Journal that a revived agreement would leave Iran with a breakout time well below a year, citing the advances in its nuclear program since then-president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018.

The exact length of the breakout time will depend on the manner in which Iran agrees to return to compliance with the deal, be it by dismantling its stockpiles of enriched uranium and relevant pieces of equipment, destroying them or shipping them abroad.

A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Feb. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, file)

However, enough nuclear material for a bomb is not the same as having the capabilities to build the core of the weapon and to attach it to the warhead of a missile, which Iran is not believed to possess and would likely take many more months to achieve.

Despite the JCPOA’s more limited impact, US negotiators are still committed to returning to the deal, guided by the belief that some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are better than none at all.

On Friday, the Biden administration restored some sanctions relief to Iran’s civilian atomic program as world powers and the Islamic Republic continue talks aimed at salvaging the languishing agreement.

As US negotiators head back to Vienna for what could be a make-or-break session, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed several sanctions waivers related to Iran’s civilian nuclear activities. The move reverses the Trump administration’s decision to rescind them.

The waivers are intended to entice Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 deal that it has been publicly violating since former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions. Iran says it is not respecting the terms of the deal because the US pulled out of it first. Iran has demanded the restoration of all sanctions relief it was promised under the deal to return to compliance.

Friday’s move lifts the sanctions threat against foreign countries and companies from Russia, China and Europe that had been cooperating with non-military parts of Iran’s nuclear program under the terms of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

The Trump administration had ended the so-called “civ-nuke” waivers in May 2020 as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that began when Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, complaining that it was the worst diplomatic agreement ever negotiated and gave Iran a pathway to developing the bomb.

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden made a US return to the nuclear deal a priority, and his administration has pursued that goal but there has been little progress toward that end since he took office a year ago. Administration officials said the waivers were being restored to help push the Vienna negotiations forward.

Technicians work at the Iranian Arak heavy water reactor, 150 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, on December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The waivers permit foreign countries and companies to work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran Research Reactor. Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had revoked the waivers in May, 2020, accusing Iran of “nuclear extortion” for continuing and expanding work at the sites.

Iran’s foreign minister on Saturday welcomed the US sanctions relief, but said the move was “insufficient.”

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