Recently, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, discovered uranium particles enriched to about 84% at Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility, according to Reuters. The revelations stem from a quarterly IAEA report that specifically addresses the enriched uranium particles that IAEA inspectors found, but the report does not suggest that Iran managed to create a stockpile of uranium enriched to that percentage.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran has acknowledged enriching uranium to 60%, though it has not yet pushed through to 90% enrichment. The 90% mark is generally accepted as the threshold for material suitable for a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s capacity to create a nuclear weapon has been debated for decades, in both its own government and by nations that may find themselves in Tehran’s crosshairs. Iran has deployed its military to other regions in the Middle East, and it has supported attempts by non-state actors to undermine the Arabic governments of its neighbors. However, Iran may feel that a nuclear bomb is necessary to deter attacks from the U.S. and its allies.
[Related article: Iran Is Determined to Follow Its Own Path Despite Problems]
How a Country Becomes a Nuclear Power
Before a country can truly become a nuclear power, several steps must take place before entry to this exclusive club occurs.
First, the fuel for a nuclear device must be created or purchased. These fuels typically include Uranium 235, Uranium 238 or Plutonium 239. Currently, Iran is suspected of having enough highly enriched uranium (uranium enriched to about 90% or higher) for one nuclear device.
Second, the fuel must be combined with conventional explosives to create nuclear fusion. Nuclear fission is still a possibility, but the resulting weapon is so large that it cannot be delivered to a target without a heavy-lift bomber, which Iran does not possess.
Most nuclear weapon designs use a plutonium center surrounded by conventional explosives. These conventional explosives must be precisely machined in a sphere shape that surrounds the fissile material.
Furthermore, these conventional explosives must be detonated at precisely the same time for nuclear fusion to occur. Once the plutonium center and conventional explosives all come together, the resulting product is known as a nuclear device. Lastly, the nuclear device must be coupled with a delivery system to make the entire package a nuclear weapon.
The Intelligence Community’s Stance on Iran’s Nuclear Status
The U.S. Intelligence Community still publicly states that Iran either stopped or suspended its nuclear program in 2003, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. However, the U.S. has engaged in efforts to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program does not restart or to prevent it from reaching fruition if it has restarted.
At recent Congressional hearings, representatives from the Biden administration claimed that Iran can hit the 90% enrichment threshold in a matter of weeks, according to C-SPAN. The IAEA has claimed in the past that Iran worked on developing a chamber inside a ballistic missile capable of housing a warhead payload “that is quite likely to be nuclear,” says NBC News.
NBC News notes that IAEA has also stated that Iran has been working on the other elements of a nuclear weapons program, including the testing of explosives for initiating a “hemispherical high explosive charge” of the kind used to help spark a nuclear blast.
Iran Has the Elements of a Nuclear Bomb, But Would Have Problems with Its Detonation
Iran appears to have most of the technical elements of a nuclear weapon, but the U.S. Intelligence Community believes that Iran would have trouble with the actual detonation of conventional explosives used for a fusion nuclear weapon. There is the potential that Russia could help Iran surmount this hurdle in exchange for Tehran’s support in the Ukraine war, but that fact is speculative at this point. Ultimately, the capacity of Iran for developing a weapons-grade nuclear bomb and becoming a nuclear power is becoming an issue once again.