A top US general said Iran has the ability to build a nuclear weapon in a very short time and that the US military is ready with other options to prevent this should diplomacy fail.
“Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told TIME magazine in comments published Wednesday. “The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute, if directed.”
While other US officials have spoken in recent days of “other options” should efforts to bring Iran back to the nuclear deal fail, McKenzie’s comments were the clearest to date as regards an American military option.
McKenzie, the top US commander in the Middle East, said he believes Tehran has currently not made the decision to press ahead with building an actual warhead, but is putting itself in a position where it could do so in a very short time.
“They’re very close this time,” McKenzie said. “I think they like the idea of being able to breakout.”
Reports in recent days have indicated that both the US and Israel believe Iran has pushed far enough ahead with its illegal enrichment program that it could build a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks to months, should it choose to do so.
The UN nuclear watchdog told member nations in its confidential quarterly report last week that Iran has an estimated stock of 17.7 kilograms (39 pounds) of uranium enriched to up to 60% fissile purity, an increase of almost 8 kilograms since August. The highly enriched uranium is only a short technical step from becoming weapons-grade.
However, McKenzie said that Iran still did not have a weapon design small enough to fit on the top of a ballistic missile, nor did it have the technology for the warhead to survive re-entry from space.
“That’s what’s going to take a little time for them to build,” he said, estimating those steps would take about a year to achieve with a robust testing program. However, he said Iran had already proved its ballistic missiles were “very capable” and highly accurate.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken of “other options,” although negotiator for the JCPOA talks Rob Malley, in an interview this week with the US broadcaster NPR, made it clear the United States was thinking foremost of economic pressure.
Nevertheless, Malley warned that Washington would not “sit idly” if Iran delayed progress at the talks.
“If [Iran] continues to do what it appears to be doing now, which is to drag its feet at the nuclear diplomatic table and accelerate its pace when it comes to its nuclear program… we’ll have to respond accordingly,” Malley said.
Israel, which fiercely opposed the 2015 deal negotiated by president Barack Obama, has waged a reported sabotage campaign against Iran and threatened military action. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett indicated that Israel was prepared to break with the US and other allies to take action against Iran, if needed.
McKenzie’s comments came the same day the UN nuclear watchdog said there had been “no progress” in talks with Tehran on disputes over the monitoring of Iran’s atomic program, just days before talks restart on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a quarterly meeting of the agency’s board that talks he held in Tehran on Tuesday were “inconclusive” despite being “constructive.”
Grossi had sought to tackle constraints put on IAEA inspections earlier this year, outstanding questions over the presence of undeclared nuclear material at sites in Iran, and the treatment of IAEA staff in the country.
“In terms of the substance… we were not able to make progress,” Grossi told reporters, saying that the lack of agreement had come “in spite of my best efforts.”
Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian television his team “tried until the last moment” but there is still work to be done.
Among other officials in Tehran, Grossi met Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Amir-Abdollahian put a positive gloss on the talks, telling the state’s official Irna agency on Wednesday that a “common declaration” had been reached which would be published “as soon as possible.”
Grossi’s visit came ahead of the scheduled resumption on Monday of negotiations between Tehran and world powers aimed at reviving the 2015 deal that gave Iran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
Iran will return to talks in Vienna with world powers after a five-month gap following the election of an ultra-conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi.
The United States said it was “disappointed” by the outcome of Grossi’s visit and said it was ready to negotiate in Vienna.
“But of course Iran’s failure to cooperate is a bad sign about their seriousness in a successful conclusion to our negotiations,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The remaining members of the accord — France, Germany, the UK, China, Russia and Iran — will attend with the US taking part indirectly.
The deal has been gradually disintegrating since Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018.
The following year Iran retaliated by starting to move away from its commitments under the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
At the IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting, the EU issued a joint statement saying it was “deeply concerned at the inconclusive outcome of the discussions” with Grossi.
Russia’s representative meanwhile said it supported Grossi’s “intent to continue working with the Iranian side and call for Tehran to do the same.”
One of the steps away from the deal came earlier this year when Iran began restricting some IAEA inspections activity.
Iran and the agency currently have a temporary agreement that gives the IAEA access to monitoring equipment at Iran’s nuclear facilities.
However, the Agency has warned that the agreement is not a durable solution and Grossi said he was “close to… the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge” of Iran’s nuclear program if it continued.
Grossi also said he had raised concerns while in Tehran about security checks on IAEA inspectors which the agency has described as “excessively invasive.”
He noted that the IAEA and Iran had a legal agreement “which is intended to protect inspectors from intimidation, from seizure of their property.”
“Our Iranian colleagues have instituted a number of measures which are simply incompatible” with this, he said.
The negotiations are being held indirectly, with an EU envoy shuttling between Malley and the Iranian delegation, which refuses to meet the US representative face-to-face.
Iran has demanded a lifting of all sanctions, but the Biden administration says it is only discussing measures imposed by Trump as part of the withdrawal from the nuclear deal, including a sweeping unilateral US ban on all other nations buying Iran’s key export of oil.