Coronavirus has not stopped Iran's march to a nuclear bomb

The estimated tens of thousands of dead from COVID-19 and the spate of new infections in recent days has not stopped the advanced IR-6 centrifuges from spinning and churning out 4%-enriched uranium.

A picture shows the seal of the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium production bearing the initials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after they were disconnected at the nuclear power plant of Natanz in 2014. (photo credit: KAZEM GHANE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
A picture shows the seal of the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium production bearing the initials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after they were disconnected at the nuclear power plant of Natanz in 2014.
(photo credit: KAZEM GHANE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
If anyone thought that the coronavirus would slow down Iran’s nuclear program, they are in for a surprise. Recent intelligence assessments in Israel indicate that not only has Iran not slowed down its nuclear program in recent months, it has even sped up the machine.
The estimated tens of thousands of dead from COVID-19 – the regime claims only 8,500 have been killed – and the spate of new infections in recent days has not stopped the advanced IR-6 centrifuges from spinning and churning out 4%-enriched uranium.
Use of the IR-6, unveiled in November, is important. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium with just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. The new IR-6 machines can refine uranium 10 times faster. But it also shows something else – that Iranian R&D is continuing, and its expertise in the nuclear realm is improving.
According to the latest assessment in Israel, it would take Iran about six months from the decision to break out to a bomb to the point that it would have enough enriched material to make one. The next stage – assembling a warhead – is a bit more difficult, and it likely will take the Iranians another year or even two.
It is also believed in Israel that the odds the ayatollahs would decide now to break out to a bomb are limited.
First, the Iranians would want to cut down the time it would take to build a warhead. Having military-grade uranium is important, but if it takes another year to install a warhead on a ballistic missile, then it might not be worth the risk of uniting the whole world against the regime without having a bomb.
Second, if it does increase uranium enrichment to military levels, the Trump administration is unlikely to remain quiet. Military action would become viable.
All of this is important because in the coming weeks, IDF Military Intelligence’s Research Division will present its semiannual intelligence assessment to the General Staff, the defense minister and then to the cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The assessment is done twice a year, once in January and again around June. What makes this assessment important is that it is the first one to be released since the Americans assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the fabled and feared Iranian general and commander of its Quds Force; since the virus known as COVID-19 came into our lives; and since the unveiling of the Trump peace plan and declarations that Israel will begin annexation of the West Bank as early as July 1.
This semiannual assessment is of particular importance on three counts.
One is the prediction that none of Israel’s enemies – not Iran, Syria, Hezbollah nor Hamas – have any plans to initiate a war against the Jewish state in the coming year.
Second is that ultimately, everything is about Iran, which continues to top any Israeli threat assessment due to its nuclear program, its continued support of terrorist proxies and its development and production of long-range ballistic missiles.
Finally, this report will directly impact the budgetary talks that are taking place right now between the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry.
A state budget in Israel is only expected at the end of the year; by then, the country will be feeling even more the brunt of what COVID-19 did to the economy. How much money the army receives translates into how many new F-15s, helicopters and JDAMs it can buy. The threat matrix is translated into a shopping list, which is then edited into a budget.
Israel’s primary concern right now regarding Tehran is ensuring that the International Atomic Energy Agency remains in Iran and continues to inspect known and suspected nuclear sites. That has been the case over the last few months, but there are concerns that the inspections team is weakening. While Western intelligence agencies in places like Israel and the US are watching what is happening in Iran’s nuclear facilities, they are still dependent on the IAEA for a clear picture.
HOW THIS plays out will largely depend on what happens on November 3. No matter who wins, the Iranians are expected to return to the negotiating table. But who will sit at the head – Trump or Biden – will obviously set the stage for the type of deal that will be made.
Even if Trump wins, the Iranians likely will need to engage; otherwise, their continued economic downturn could destabilize the regime. But this scenario has Israel concerned as well. It would clearly not want a return to the 2015 JCPOA, but it will also not accept a deal that cosmetically looks better but substantively hasn’t changed anything.
The coming weeks are a critical period for Israel. While annexation might physically only impact the West Bank, the ripple effect of the move could be felt in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. In all of these countries, Israel depends widely on the international community to do what is needed to undermine and weaken its enemies.
In Lebanon, Israel is constantly lobbying the Europeans and the UN to toughen their stance on Hezbollah. A clear example of this was Germany’s recent decision to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This week, however, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was in Israel warning Netanyahu about annexation. Will a future European country, currently considering outlawing Hezbollah, change its mind if Israel applies sovereignty to Efrat?
In Syria, Israel relies on a delicate coordination mechanism with Russia to keep up its frequent strikes against Iranian targets. Will annexation change anything?
And when it comes to Iran, the world is anything but united regarding the best way to confront the antisemitic Islamic regime. While the US has pulled out of the JCPOA, the rest of the world has remained in the deal. What will happen when America once again adopts a controversial unilateral move and recognizes Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria?
In three weeks we will begin to know.
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Humility is never a bad thing. Even for a country.
There is a feeling among some in Israel that America needs an Israeli annexation in the West Bank to happen. To be more exact: that Donald Trump, facing a tough reelection campaign against former vice president Joe Biden, needs Israel to annex territory in the West Bank to shore up votes.
It is an idea primarily being pushed by settler leaders like Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, who has made a name for himself as the fiercest opponent to the Trump peace plan and the government’s intention to annex only some parts of Judea and Samaria.
Dagan has been hammering away at that message for months, including Thursday morning, when he told a radio interviewer that Trump needs annexation to rally his base.
Truth is, Trump really doesn’t.
There are six principal characters in the US who have varying degrees of involvement in annexation: Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Avi Berkowitz and, of course, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and his top adviser, Aryeh Lightstone, a member of the mapping committee.
The first three are currently dealing with four critical issues: riots on the streets of America in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing; the continued health crisis caused by COVID-19; a projected 53% fall in GDP in the second quarter in the US; and something small called a reelection in five months. Annexation doesn’t even make it into the room, let alone onto the agenda.
Friedman, Lightstone and Berkowitz are different. They are the three officials whose portfolio is singularly focused on Israel and the Trump peace deal. But even they understand the complicated reality and the limited bandwidth that exists right now in Washington to tackle any problems that arise around the Deal of the Century.
For Dagan and others to think that this is what will determine the election is nothing more than hubris. Can he possibly rally some Evangelicals to lobby some congressmen or administration officials? Maybe.
But if they don’t succeed in getting Dagan what he wants and he remains opposed to the plan, are those Americans suddenly going to vote for Biden? Are they going to stay home in Texas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin because only Ma’aleh Adumim was annexed and not the land where the former settlement of Homesh once stood?
America is facing a crisis unlike any seen in living history. There are more than 100,000 people dead from coronavirus, more than two million infected, tens of millions remain unemployed, there is violence on the streets – and the election is just around the corner.
What Israel does in the next few weeks will be important to Israelis, the Palestinians and maybe some other actors in the region. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Israel and annexation won’t play a role on November 3.