Will Iran Build A Bomb If The JCPOA Talks Fail?

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran nuclear agreement) talks have been staggering for over a year now. I haven’t followed them as closely as I did in 2015. Back then, I followed the technical aspects – how many centrifuges of what kind, what would be inspected to be sure that Iran was following the agreement. The JCPOA is remarkable in its technical detail and verifiability.

This time around, the discussions have been about sanctions and who is going to take action on what, when. Not much I can contribute there. The negotiators have kept things secret, too, another reason I haven’t had much to say. Even when some information leaks, I have to wonder what hasn’t leaked.

I would hate to see the JCPOA fail. It is a force for stability in the Middle East, and, until the US withdrawal by the Trump administration, Iran was complying with it. Israel seems to be itching for an incredibly destructive war if the talks fail, despite the statements of much of Israel’s security establishment that the JCPOA is good for Israel, war is not.

Iran’s actions throughout the past several decades seem to indicate that what they want is the leverage that their nuclear program gives them, more than a bomb itself. In 2003, they ended a program that was headed toward a bomb. They know the downsides: getting a nuclear target painted on them, the cost of maintaining a stockpile, developing delivery mechanisms, and continued isolation from the rest of the world. The threat that they might get a bomb is a way to negotiate sanctions down and a pathway toward a more normalized place in the world.

But now Iran is well down a path to a bomb. They have enriched a quantity of uranium to a level from which it can quickly be further enriched to bomb-grade. They can be stopped by the US rejoining the JCPOA, which still includes all the other participants. Iran decided to use its leverage in response to the US withdrawal and ratcheted up its enrichment. One more step every so often, intended to pressure the US to return. The Trump administration imposed additional sanctions on Iran in their “maximum pressure” campaign, including a poison pill of naming the IRGC, Iran’s elite military group, a terrorist organization. Removing that designation seems to be a political step too far for the Biden administration.

For the technical negotiations, numbers are useful. One that the anti-Iran faction in the US and Israel (the two are intertwined) managed to provide the name for is “breakout time.” That is the time needed for Iran to enrich enough uranium for one bomb. A number of variables come into this, but the main one is the number of centrifuges and how effectively they are working.

“Breakout time” is not the time required for Iran to make a bomb, even if it sounds that way. Making a bomb would take additional time to machine the uranium and assemble, perhaps construct, other components of a bomb. We don’t know how much of the other components Iran has already manufactured; that work can easily be done in secret. If they have all the parts, and we know they are capable of making them, it might take a month or two beyond “breakout time.”

This is where the question of whether Iran wants a bomb becomes important. What does a country do with one bomb? Testing probably would not be necessary; the Manhattan Project’s uranium bomb, the one detonated over Hiroshima, was never tested. Iran probably has a design for a uranium implosion bomb that China developed, but there are rumors that that is not a reliable design.

One bomb becomes a target for Israel, which likes daring single-target strikes like the ones they’ve carried out in Iraq and Syria. But it’s also a keep-away to deter Israel. The Iranian government has to consider that.

Of course, once they’re running the centrifuges to produce enriched uranium, additional bombs can come relatively quickly.

Iran’s ratcheting-up strategy implies further steps toward a bomb if the JCPOA talks fail. There is undoubtedly pressure within Iran to go all the way. They have stepped back before, and perhaps they can find a way to step back now. But the best move would be for the US to come back to the JCPOA.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

One comment

  1. The Blog Fodder · June 13

    I am highly in favour of Iran getting The Bomb. It will keep Israel from bullying other Muslim nations which would be a good thing. Israel exists because of American dollars. American dollars are forthcoming mainly because the evangelicals believe that war in the Middle East will hasten the Second Coming. They do not give a damn about Jews.


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