US army chief: Iran could produce enough material for nuclear weapon within 2 weeks

Milley says Tehran would still require several more months to assemble weapon for use, states US military has developed ‘multiple options’ for leadership to consider if needed

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testifies during a House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 23, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testifies during a House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 23, 2023. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon within two weeks and would only need several additional months to assemble the weapon for use, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley said Thursday.

Milley shared the updated US assessment in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in a hearing on the Defense Department’s annual budget request.

“But the United States remains committed, as a matter of policy, that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon,” he added, noting that the US military has “developed multiple options for our national leadership to consider if or when Iran ever decides to develop an actual nuclear weapon.”

While the Biden administration has largely refrained from publicly discussing the military option, the president has stated that it remains on the table if diplomatic efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon fail.

Milley’s remarks built on testimony given last month by US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl who also said Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in under two weeks.

Kahl said at a House of Representatives hearing that Iran’s nuclear program had significantly progressed since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018.

He was asked why the Biden administration has attempted to revive the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA).

“Because Iran’s nuclear progress since we left the JCPOA has been remarkable. Back in 2018, when the previous administration decided to leave the JCPOA, it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material. Now it would take about 12 days,” Kahl said.

“So I think there is still the view that if you could resolve this issue diplomatically and put constraints back on their nuclear program, it is better than the other options. But right now, the JCPOA is on ice,” Kahl said.

US officials previously estimated Iran’s so-called breakout time to amass material for a weapon as weeks. The US also believes Iran does not yet have all of the technology required to build a bomb and has not made a final decision to build a weapon.

Talks to reinstate the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers restarted in April 2021 but have been stalled since last year as Iran forges ahead with its nuclear ambitions.

Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog have found uranium particles enriched up to 83.7 percent in Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site, the UN’s nuclear watchdog revealed earlier this month.

The confidential quarterly report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed to member states has raised tensions further between Iran and the West over Iran’s program, even as Tehran already faces internal unrest after months of protests and Western anger over sending bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war on Ukraine.

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)

The IAEA report only speaks about “particles,” suggesting that Iran isn’t building a stockpile of uranium enriched above 60% — the level it has been enriching at for some time, which nonproliferation experts already say has no civilian use for Tehran.

Uranium at nearly 84% is almost at weapons-grade levels of 90% — meaning any stockpile of that material could be quickly enriched for the purposes of building an atomic bomb if Iran chooses.

Earlier this week, the Axios news site reported that Israel has told the US and several European countries that an Iranian decision to enrich uranium above the 60% level could trigger an IDF strike.

An Israeli official told Axios that Israel doesn’t consider the small amounts enriched at 84% purity to be particularly significant because Iran didn’t amass any of the material at that level.

Despite the warning, Israel has avoided laying out a “red line,” regarding when it will act, as Netanyahu did during the Obama administration.

The Israeli official told Axios that Israel was avoiding declaring that its “red line” is 90% purity because it fears that might give Iran the legitimacy to continue enriching up to that level.

The US intelligence community continues to maintain its assessment that Iran isn’t pursuing an atomic bomb.

“To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003,” CIA Director Williams Burns told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program last month. “But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they’ve obviously advanced very far.”

Fordo, which sits under a mountain near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran, remains a special concern for the international community. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

Any explanation from Iran, however, likely won’t be enough to satisfy Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military actions against Tehran, and Israel and Iran have been engaged in a high-stakes shadow war across the wider Middle East since the nuclear deal’s collapse.

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