US official says Iran could produce nuclear material for a bomb ‘in about 12 days’

Under secretary of defense tells House lawmakers Iranian nuclear program has seen ‘remarkable’ progress, as UN watchdog says it has enriched uranium to near weapons-grade

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)
Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

A senior US defense official said Tuesday that Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in under two weeks.

The warning from US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl came as the UN confirmed Iran has enriched uranium to nearly weapons-grade level at an underground nuclear site.

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 breakout time 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.

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

Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog have found uranium particles enriched up to 83.7 percent in Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear site, according to Tuesday reports.

The confidential quarterly report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed to member states likely will raise 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.

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.

The IAEA report described inspectors discovering on January 21 that two cascades of IR-6 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo facility had been configured in a way “substantially different” from what had been previously declared.

The IAEA took samples the following day, which showed particles up to 83.7% purity, the report said.

“Iran informed the agency that ‘unintended fluctuations’ in enrichment levels may have occurred during the transition period,” the IAEA report said.

Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant. Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord set in motion a series of escalations by Tehran.

Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.

Spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Behrouz Kamalvandi, center, briefs the media while visiting the Fordo nuclear site near Qom, south of Tehran, Iran November 9, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

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.

While the IAEA’s director-general has warned Iran now has enough uranium to produce “several” nuclear bombs if it chooses, it likely would take months more to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile.

The US intelligence community, as recently as this past weekend, has maintained 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. “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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