US officials see Iran ‘weeks’ away from bomb breakout, upping urgency around talks

Senator says Iran can have enough fuel for a nuke within 60 days, following ‘shocking’ briefing with diplomats, but Republicans say Biden too desperate for bad agreement

Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora arrives at the Coburg Palace, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting that aims at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on February 8, 2022. (Alex Halada / AFP)
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora arrives at the Coburg Palace, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting that aims at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on February 8, 2022. (Alex Halada / AFP)

The US believes Iran could have enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon within weeks if it wants to, lawmakers were told in a closed-door briefing this week, as urgency grows to reach a deal to revive the 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.

US senators expressed shock and dismay over the assessment from US negotiator Rob Malley and National Security Council envoy Brett McGurk Wednesday, even as negotiators in Vienna signaled that the sides may be nearing an agreement for the US to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, nearly four years after US president Donald Trump pulled out of it.

Malley and McGurk told the lawmakers that Iran could break out to a bomb within “weeks,” Politico reported, citing a House Democrat. They argued that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign had made the region more dangerous by allowing Iran to restart its nuclear program.

Senator Chris Murphy described the briefing to reporters as “sobering and shocking.”

“If Iran chose to seek a nuclear weapon today, they likely only need 60 days to develop the fuel to do so,” he wrote in an op-ed published by Time magazine Thursday, which linked to a Politico article reporting on the assessment that Iran was weeks away from having enough fuel.

“That is a scary reality for our friends in the Middle East, especially Israel,” he added.

In August, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Iran was only 10 weeks away from having enough fuel to build a nuclear bomb.

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

Michèle Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense in the Barack Obama administration, told MSNBC News Thursday that “breakout time is down to a matter of weeks, which is truly alarming.”

“We are in a really dangerous situation,” she said.

The assessments have piled pressure on the Biden administration to reach a deal before it becomes a moot point.

Officials involved in the talks have indicated that they are nearing a conclusion, and experts have surmised that the next few weeks will either see a deal reached or talks fall apart for good.

“By next week we should know if there will be a deal or not,” Iran expert Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, told reporter Laura Rozen.  “Either breakdown or breakthrough.”

Visiting Israel Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that the nuclear talks with Iran were entering a “final phase,” and had reached a “very critical point.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, left, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid talk during a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 10, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AP)

On Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a meeting that “we are reaching the last steps of the negotiation.”

“Going another month or year with Trump’s Iran policy still in place is madness,” Murphy wrote in Time. “So now is the time for Biden’s negotiating team to make the smart but necessary concessions to restart some version of Obama’s nuclear deal.”

Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, argued that “there are no good alternative options to promptly restoring compliance with the JCPOA.”

“The fact is that without a prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, it is more than plausible, possible, and maybe even probable that Iran will try to become a threshold nuclear weapon state,” Kimball said.

“I think we’re at a critical moment, a serious moment and we’ll see which way it turns,” Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told AFP after the briefing with Malley and McGurk. “But I certainly walked away with a sense of the difficulties of the moment we are in.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., questions State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, Jr., as he testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 5, 2016. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Earlier this month, Menendez, a Democrat who opposed the deal in 2015, warned the White House against reviving the agreement as it is. “At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?” he said.

But Republicans say they fear the administration’s urgency to reach a deal and put constraints back on Iran is driving Biden to accept a bad agreement that may not shackle the nuclear program in any case.

“I think the only deal that’s possible is a bad one. And that’s what I fear — that the administration wants a deal so badly that they’ll enter into a really dangerous one,” Senator Marco Rubio, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, told Politico.

Senator Jim Risch, the leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed skepticism.

“We were promised by the administration — while they were still celebrating with champagne and streamers and confetti — that it was going to be ‘longer and stronger.’ I think probably even they would admit that that proposition is off the table,” he said, according to the news site.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday, denied assertions that Iran has the upper hand.

“We’re not going to (just) accept anything Iran has to offer,” Sherman said. “We will re-enter the JCPOA in its fullness if Iran maintains compliance with it.”

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Robert Malley of the US National Security Council and European Union Political Director Helga Schmid wait before the start of a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Saturday March 28, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

“And all of our options always remain on the table, regardless of what gets chosen here,” she said.

Opposition to the deal is strong on the right and 32 Republican senators wrote to Biden recently saying any deal would need to be submitted to Congress “for evaluation” with the “possibility of Congress blocking implementation.”

The Biden administration has not responded to the letter so far, apparently considering that any deal reached would be a return to an existing agreement and not a new one.

Republican lawmakers have also made it clear they oppose lifting economic sanctions imposed on Iran, saying it would reward Tehran for its “destabilizing activities.”

Mark Dubowitz, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement, said the Iranians “know President Biden is desperate for a deal.”

“So they’ve been squeezing the administration for concessions,” Dubowitz told AFP.

Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Coburg Palace, venue of the talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna, on February 8, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

He said if the JPCOA is revived “the Israelis are estimating that the breakout time will go to four to six months,” one-third or half of the year predicted under the initial deal.

Dubowitz, who advocates returning to Trump’s maximum pressure strategy, said the administration wants “to put the Iranian nuclear program back in a box” so they can concentrate on other priorities such as China. “Problem is the box has no lid.”

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