Iran Appears Poised for a Surprise Nuclear Breakout

May 19, 2022 | Andrea Stricker
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On May 5, an unnamed Iranian official told Reuters that Tehran’s “nuclear program is advancing as planned and time is on [its] side.” Last Monday, the Islamic Republic’s President Ebrahim Raisi noted that his country’s “oil sales have doubled.” For these reasons and others, Andrea Stricker argues, Iran is under no pressure to agree to an updated version of the 2015 nuclear deal. On the contrary, she warns, “protracted negotiations may provide cover for a nuclear breakout.”

A nuclear breakout is not the same as having a functional weapon, although once a proliferator has weapons-grade uranium, preventing weaponization must happen quickly. Tehran could finalize a weapon at a site adjacent to its enrichment facility, a process likely to require several months, given what is known about Iran’s weaponization progress since 2003. Incorporating an atomic weapon on a missile would take substantially longer.

Meanwhile, foreign powers would waver about what to do. The UN would convene meeting after meeting, demanding Iran grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to suspect sites. But gone are the days of unanimous UN Security Council action—such as that seen in response to North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test or against the first revelations of Iran’s clandestine enrichment program in 2002.

In the end, a U.S. president could be left with the undesirable choice of conducting military strikes, possibly with Israeli help, or accepting a nuclear Iran.

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