This article was written by Constantin Ghika, a staff writer for Shield. Constantin is an undergraduate student in the department of War Studies at King’s College London. The multicultural environment in which he grew up (his mother is French and his father is Romanian), as well as his family’s military background gave him a passion for international defence and security issues. His favourite topics are insurgency, counter-insurgency, terrorism, nuclear weapons, military strategy and military history, among others. In his free time, Constantin enjoys reading, playing video games and doing sports.
[Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part article. A link to Part II will be hyperlinked below after publication.]
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or, as it is more colloquially known, the ‘Iran Deal’, was ratified in July 2015. It was meant to put an end to decades of tensions between the West and Iran, which were caused by Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme. The 2015 deal between Iran, the European Union and the P5+1 (i.e. the United Nations Security Council members, plus Germany) was simple. The P5+1 would lift their sanctions on Iran, and in exchange, Tehran would give up military ambitions for its nuclear programme. Western governments hoped this would prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities, and avertan otherwise possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East. On 8 May 2018, however, US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States of America from the deal, calling it ‘decaying and rotten’. His decision cast significant uncertainties on the agreement. Now that the JCPOA is endangered, a fundamental question remains: will Iran get the bomb? To answer this, we must first consider whether Iran is technically capable of obtaining and using a nuclear weapon.
To manufacture a nuclear weapon, fissile material is required, either in the form of plutonium or uranium. Plutonium is lighter and more powerful than uranium but takes longer to produce. It can be obtained in a nuclear reactor by irradiating uranium. In the JCPOA, Iran agreed to render inoperable the core of its heavy water plant reactor, near Arak,which was originally capable of manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium. As of January 2016, the reactor core of Arak had been made inoperable, and the whole facility was to be converted for medical as well as industrial nuclear use. Arak’s spent fuel was also to be moved out of the country, probably to Russia, although the final destination had not been determined when the deal was signed. This is important because spent fuel still contains plutonium. Once treated, the remaining plutonium can be reused to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Since the core of the Arak plant reactor has been made inoperable, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani decided, following Trump’s decision, to restart uranium enrichment operationsrather than focusing on plutonium.
To be suitable for military use, uranium must be enriched to at least 90 per cent. Enrichment can be achieved chemically or industrially, using centrifuges. The centrifuges spin rapidly to raise the proportion of uranium-235, the isotope responsible for achieving nuclear fission. By signing the deal, Iran agreed to restrict its uranium enrichment operations. Since 2015, Tehran has dismantled several of its nuclear facilities and disposed of 20,000 centrifuges, as well as most of its previous stock of 22,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium. Today, Iran possesses around 250 pounds of low-enriched uranium and has 6,000 aged and inefficient centrifuges. To produce a quantity of highly enriched uranium necessary for two to three nuclear weapons (more than one is required, mainly for tests), several thousand efficient centrifuges and at least 330 pounds of low-enriched material are needed. But in fact, the amount of low-enriched uranium required to produce enriched uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon varies with the degree of enrichment as well as the quality of the centrifuges. In other words, if your centrifuges are not top-level, you are going to need more low-enriched uranium. Consequently, Iran does not have enough efficient centrifuges and uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
Following Trump’s decision, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani chooseto recommence uranium enrichment. Experts such as David Albright agree that it would take around eight to ten months for Tehran to rebuild its enrichment facilitiesand produce enough uranium for a nuclear weapon – meaning the earliest date they could have enough uranium for a bomb is January to March 2019. Although their facilities are largely dismantled, Iranian scientists know how to produce fissile material, the first stage in obtaining nuclear weapons. They must, however, first produce enough fuel.
Iran’s skills in weaponisation are also important: it is necessary to weaponise the fissile material, i.e. to design and construct a nuclear weapon. It is unclear whether Iran has the necessary knowledge and means to do so. As of October 2007, it appeared that Iran did not have a serious weaponization program.
Another key issue is the delivery system: how the nuclear weapon is launched and delivered to its target. Delivery can be achieved by an aircraft carrying the bomb, a missile or a submarine carrying ballistic missiles. Although Iran’s Air Force owns several Su-24 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons (in theory), most of its fleet is aging and in questionable condition. As for their submarines, none of Iran’s vessels appear capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
Tehran’s missiles, however, are a different matter. Iran holds the largest and most diversified ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. Among its thirteen missile systems, eight are considered nuclear capable, including the Shahab 3 and its variants, such as the Ghadr. Ballistic missiles are key to Iran’s security, not only because these weapons systems represent its only feasible mean of delivering a nuclear weapon that it may develop, but also because missiles were excluded from the JCPOA. That is, Iran is not breaching the terms of the treaty by investing in, and advancing, its missile systems.
Evidence shows that Tehran knows how to produce fissile material and could have enough of it by January to August 2019. Whether Iranian scientists possess the requisite skill set to design and build a nuclear weapon is, however, more doubtful. As of 2007, it seemed that Tehran did not know how to weaponize a nuclear weapon. Evidences are unclear about the current situation of the weaponization program. Nevertheless, when it comes to the delivery system, Tehran is knowledgeable in designing, building and using ballistic missiles. Hence, they seem to have the means to deliver a nuclear weapon.
This article has demonstrated that, despite the limits imposed by the JCPOA and Tehran’s apparent insufficient knowledge in terms of weaponization, Iran seems generally able to build a nuclear weapon and to deliver it. However, there is more to the development of nuclear weapons than mere technical considerations: geopolitical factors play as much, if not more of, a role in determining a government’s stance towards nuclearization. Part II of this article will explore Iran’s geopolitical considerations as it pursues the bomb, including its relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US and the JCPOA’s other signatories; only once these factors have been addressed can one answer this article’s chief question, namely will Iran develop nuclear weapons?