The nuclear fallout from the nuclear assassination - analysis

Will Iran now get dangerously close to a bomb?

PROTESTERS ON Saturday burn US and Israel flags during a demonstration against the the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
PROTESTERS ON Saturday burn US and Israel flags during a demonstration against the the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran.
The nuclear fallout could be as important as the recent nuclear assassination.
On the one hand, there has so far not been any major conventional military response by Iran to the assassination of its military nuclear program chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27.
On the other hand, there is an internal war brewing between the Islamic Republic’s hardline-dominated parliament and its pragmatic president Hassan Rouhani over escalating the nuclear standoff itself.
Will the end result of killing Fakhrizadeh be that Tehran will move from its current three to fourth months from a nuclear bomb to being a dangerously close two months from one?
Last week, Iran’s parliament voted to obligate its atomic agency to do a number of things.
Three of them are actually potentially very important even in the near- to mid-term timelines:
1) enriching some uranium all the way up to the 20% level from the current 3-5% level
2) attaching and operating 1,000 IR-2m moderately advanced centrifuges, which are around four times faster than the more frequently used IR-1, and which is far more than the less than 200 currently attached IR-2ms, and
3) attaching and operating 1,000 highly advanced IR-6 centrifuges.
Iran has given the US two months to rejoin the nuclear deal before this push would happen; if positive progress is being made between the Biden administration and Iran, the aggressive moves may get put on ice.
But what if they go forward?
The Jerusalem Post spoke to two top experts on nuclear issues – Institute for Science and International Security president David Albright and former IAEA and current Stimson Center official Olli Heinonen – to get an estimate about how much closer these steps would get the ayatollahs to a nuclear bomb and whether the stated goals were realistic.
Though there are some differences of opinions, the consensus among the experts was that once Iran has enriched a certain amount of uranium to the 20% level, that could cut “an order of weeks” off the clock to getting a nuclear weapon – meaning supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be as little as two months from a bomb.
This means that the 20% issue is probably the most important one to watch in the near-term.
Some of this could also depend on how fast additional IR-2m’s are attached and begin to operate.
Iran’s parliamentary bill said it should be done within three months of a lack of progress with the nuclear deal. Since a lack of progress was defined as two months from now, the goal would be to have 1,000 IR-2m’s operating five months from now.
Albright and Heinonen both thought this was a realistic timeline.
In contrast, they were both more skeptical about the Islamic Republic’s ability to boost its set of 164 IR-6 centrifuges to 1,000 within one year.
Apparently, there are a number of scientific, supply and assembly issues which might make this a less realistic timeline.
This is crucial, because the IR-6 is far more advanced and, once a large number would be operational, could cut down the amount of time Tehran would need to break out to a nuclear bomb to even less than two months.
So for the next half year, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear bomb will likely remain at between two and four months, even if it follows through on its threat.
Two months gets close to making it hard to give an ultimatum and for planning any kind of preemptive strike.
Also, the IR-2m’s that will be added are to be installed at a new underground facility at Natanz, which Israel might not be capable of striking on its own.
But the bigger question will be a year from now – or whenever Tehran can install 1,000 IR-6s.
This could truly be a breaking point at which the ayatollahs could produce enough nuclear material for a bomb at a speed that would be hard to detect in time to stop them.
The situation is fluid and there are currently many diplomatic, covert attack, cyberattack and open military attack options on the table.
Intelligence officials in Israel and the US are also in agreement that the death of Fakhrizadeh set back the Islamic Republic’s ability to manage its nuclear program, as did the July 2 explosion destroying Iran’s previous above-ground advanced centrifuge facility at Natanz.
Still, the ayatollahs have not given up their nuclear ambitions.
In six months or in about a year, it may turn out that the killing of Fakhrizadeh only delayed them.
In that case, Israel may yet have some fateful decisions to make if Biden’s diplomacy fails – and Jerusalem wants to prevent a nuclear Iran.