Have four explosions pushed Iran farther away from a nuke? - Analysis

The IR-9 - the most advanced centrifuge - is nowhere near being able to produce anything.

View of a damage building after a fire broke out at Iran's Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS)
View of a damage building after a fire broke out at Iran's Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Of the myriad fascinating questions surrounding the four recent, mysterious explosions in Iran, there is still one key issue that rises above the rest: Has any of this significantly distanced Iran further from a nuclear weapon?
The jury is still out, as there is so much that is unconfirmed. But to date, the early answer would need to be: probably not.
Since the IAEA’s March report that the Islamic Republic crossed the threshold for having enough low-level enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, the estimated time for Tehran to enrich enough of that uranium up to a weaponized level dropped from 12 months to as little as four months.
There are a variety of estimates going around about how much those four months might be delayed if the explosion at Natanz last Thursday damaged the ayatollahs’ advanced centrifuges.
Centrifuges are the machines that spin at extremely high speeds to enrich uranium to potentially make a nuclear bomb. More-advanced centrifuges, such as the IR-4, IR-6, IR-8 and IR-9, can enrich uranium at between four to 50 times the speed of less-advanced ones, such as the IR-1.
But the bottom line is that Iran has already done a lot of the work.
It already has enough nuclear material enriched for at least one and likely two nuclear bombs. What is left is mostly the decision to enrich the low-level material to a higher weaponized level.
Further, while the Islamic Republic likes to brag about its advanced centrifuges – and there are Israeli intelligence officials who have expressed concern to The Jerusalem Post about them – most nuclear experts, including Iran hawks, have told the Post advanced centrifuges are not the primary problem.
The IR-9, the most-advanced centrifuge, is nowhere near being able to produce anything.
There is an ongoing debate about whether the IR-4s and IR-6s are functioning properly and whether they can help Iran get closer to the nuclear-weapon finish line, since even in the recent past, they were notorious for malfunctioning.
Nuclear experts have said most countries that are seriously going for nuclear weapons pick one more-advanced model to master. They say the more Tehran talks publicly about advanced centrifuges, the more it seems like a public-relations stunt.
Also, Iran only has a few hundred more-advanced centrifuges, whereas it has close to 20,000 IR-1s and IR-2ms.
Many experts say these less-advanced models are still the real threat because there are so many of them.
If Iran reattached all of its IR-1s and IR-2ms – around 75% of which are currently off-line – that would be much more threatening than the small number of more-advanced models.
And once again, a lot of uranium is already enriched.
There has also been a lot of talk about Stuxnet and cyber warfare.
According to foreign reports, the Stuxnet cyberattack in 2010 by US, Israeli and Dutch intelligence did set the Islamic Republic back regarding its progress toward a bomb.
But Tehran eventually jumped past the point where it had been in 2010.
If any of the four explosions were an attack of some kind by the US, Israel, the Saudis or someone else, the goal is at most to play for time – possibly until the US election – and to foreshadow more threats down the line if the ayatollahs move closer to a nuclear weapon.
But whether in the diplomatic, military or sanctioning realms, it will take a lot more than even these four explosions to stop Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon in the long term.