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Is Iran close to building a nuclear bomb?

According to the latest assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Iran is edging closer to building nuclear weapons. As Iran increases its stockpile of enriched uranium to weapons-grade level, it is important to consider the impact of this development on the region and beyond.

Picture credit: REUTERS

All eyes have been on West Asia as the region descends into turmoil over the ongoing multi-pronged offensives ever since Hamas launched an attack on Israel on the fateful day of October 7th. Amidst this crisis of epic proportions, there is yet another development that needs to be considered with utmost priority- Iran’s nuclear development programme. Over the past few months, Iran has been in the news for a variety of reasons, its attack on Israel albeit not catastrophic, did raise eyebrows over the security situation in the region. All the more recently, Iran’s radical hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian lost their lives in a tragic helicopter crash in the East Azerbaijan province of Iran. 

The latest reason why Iran has become the centre of attention comes from the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international nuclear energy watchdog tasked with the role of verification of the safeguard measures when it comes to nuclear energy and nuclear stockpiles. The IAEA has been constantly monitoring the developments in Iran’s nuclear programme and releases interim reports to understand the level of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) possessed by the country.

In its most recent assessment, the IAEA noted that Iran has increased the stockpile of enriched uranium to 142.1 kg, enriched up to 60 per cent capacity.

To put this in context, the weapons-grade uranium levels are 90 per cent, which means that Iran is drawing closer to nuclear weapons by the day. In addition to this, 60 per cent enriched uranium, as per the IAEA, can itself be also used to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA, as reported by the Associated Press notes that it is “theoretically possible” to develop one atomic bomb by enriching 42 kg of 60 per cent enriched uranium up to the levels of 90 per cent.  To put it simply, Iran would just have to further enrich 42 kg of HEU to develop one atomic bomb. Iran is nearly there. 

In the aftermath of the demise of President Raisi, Iran has also curbed further talks with the IAEA, which further creates complications when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme. The nuclear programme of the country is directly under the control of the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and so the tragic turn of events leading to the death of President Raisi would have little impact on the country’s nuclear policy. It would not be wrong to say that the current situation in West Asia, may have further strengthened the resolve of Iran to further the enrichment of uranium, while the world focuses on the tragedy of Israel and Palestine. 

All these constant reports of the IAEA and the laser-sharp focus on Iran’s nuclear programme further begs the question- why is there such scrutiny over Iran? For one simple reason - arms race. A nuclear arms race in West Asia would be catastrophic for more than one reason. The general level of animosity and latent conflicts that exist among the states of West Asia would be heightened if they come to possess this destructive device. The prevalence of militia groups, fundamental Islamist terror groups that exist in the region pose a constant threat of nuclear material being possessed by non-state actors. If Iran falls onto the wagon of possessing nuclear weapons for “security” reasons, it may have a completely opposing effect, thereby increasing insecurity in the region. While developing nuclear security may seem like a viable option for deterrence purposes, maintenance of a minimum credible deterrent is different in each case, this is what fuels a further arms race, wherein states continue to test and launch various technologies and start developing tactical nuclear weapons capability as well. Nuclear weapons technology is more fragile than we think. 

Considering the situation of Iran developing nuclear weapons, which may not be a hypothetical situation for long, it will prompt other states in the region to hold their guards as well. The question of Israel, Iran’s nemesis in the region, is even more important. Israel’s nuclear weapons programme is characterized by ambiguity and non-transparency. So far Israel has maintained a policy of nuclear opacity. However, this may change as soon as Iran makes its first bomb. Let’s turn to the other nemesis, Saudi Arabia. It was not long ago, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman confirmed in an interview that Saudi Arabia will seek nuclear weapons if Iran develops them. Even the China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not be able to resist the arms race if it comes to that. This just goes to show that Iran’s nuclear weapons development will have serious ramifications for the region as well as the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. 

If Iran manages to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, it could create a “chain reaction” of the states in the region resorting to nuclear capability to assert dominance. Something that West Asia needs the least at this point. 

The other aspect of the contention over the Iranian nuclear programme is the reaction of the West. What has however been of peculiar interest is the response of the United States, in particular, over the recent report of the IAEA. The United States warned the United Kingdom and France against sanctioning Iran further over the recent reports, this may point to the US backtracking a bit in an attempt to diffuse the situation amidst already heightened tensions between Iran and the West. Western sanctions, however, have been a constant bone of contention between Iran’s relationship with the Western powers and the United States has the oldest track record of imposing sanctions against Iran. Sanctions were once again the policy of the West in its attempt to coerce Iran into giving up its nuclear programme once the talks between Iran and P5 plus Germany and EU failed as Trump withdrew support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US withdrawal from this landmark agreement has made Iran’s resolve to build nuclear weapons even stronger, despite being faced with continuous sanctions. These sanctions have also pushed Iran further away from the West and its interests and more towards finding new allies closer home, particularly in Russia. 

Russia, embroiled in a war of its own making, has itself been taking the nuclear threat to another level by also conducting tactical nuclear weapons drills, constantly keeping the United States and its allies on edge.

The partnership with Russia could also inform Iran’s nuclear policies, making it all the more difficult for the Western powers to enter into negotiations with Iran. The decision of the US to not impose further sanctions however, could be a step towards de-escalations of tension, or it could just be another attempt of the US to stay out of West Asia during the election season. 

Even though Iran maintains that it wants to pursue a civilian nuclear capability, apprehensions remain. Whatever the case may be, Iran’s rapidly developing nuclear capability is a cause for concern. It will most definitely, push the non-proliferation regime further back, giving way to an era of nuclear arms race in the region. 


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