Iran nuclear weapons: How close is Iran to developing a nuclear bomb?

Iran carries out annual military exercises

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Officials from China, France, Germany, Russia, Israel, the US and the UK will enter a round of critical talks with Iran in Vienna from Monday in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the total collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal. The deal – which saw Iran’s nuclear activities limited in return for the lifting of sanctions – was put in jeopardy when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018 and reinstated sanctions, leading to an uptick in Iranian nuclear activity.

Just how close is Iran to making a nuclear bomb?

The 2015 accord sought to restrict Iran’s atomic activity to increase the ‘breakout time’ it would take to make a nuclear bomb.

This breakout time would be the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material – ie, enriched uranium – to make the nuclear weapon.

When Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, Iran began to breach the restrictions imposed by the deal.

However, Iran has always maintained it never sought to make a nuclear bomb and never will, making an accurate estimate of the current breakout time difficult.

Some diplomats and nuclear experts have said the starting point of one year is conservative and Iran would need longer.

But David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, estimated in November 2020 that Iran’s breakout time could be “as short as 3.5 months”.

If Iran accumulated enough enriched uranium, it would still need to assemble a bomb, which is no small feat.

But stockpiling enough fissile material is widely seen as the biggest hurdle in producing a nuclear weapon.

So how much enriched uranium does Iran have?

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Iran has 10kg of uranium enriched to 60 percent as of September 21, and 84.3kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent.

This is a significantly higher level of refinement than had been previously reached, marking a major uptick in refinement since the 2018 blow to the accord.

Highly enriched uranium has a purity of 20 percent or more and is used in research reactors.

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Weapons-grade uranium is 90 percent enriched or more.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran was only permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent purity.

Iran has continued to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its nuclear programme and says the steps are easily reversible.

But the US-based Arms Control Association (ACA) said that once Iran had accumulated 170kg of 20 percent-enriched uranium, it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth, or 25kg, of uranium enriched to weapons-grade in less than two months.

What else is Iran doing?

Other Iranian breaches to the 2015 accord include:

  • Exceeded the 300kg limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

  • Resumed enrichment activity at Fordo, an underground facility exposed by Western intelligence services in 2009.

  • Begun using more centrifuges (machines that spin at supersonic speeds to refine uranium), and of a more advanced type, than it is allowed.

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