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What Is Known About Iran's Nuclear Capabilities


As Franco just mentioned, the president said he wanted to try and persuade remaining partners of the Iran nuclear deal to abandon it. So how far is Iran from actually developing such a weapon? Joining me to parse that out is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: I want to start with some words from Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Here he is speaking yesterday with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.


JAVAD ZARIF: If we wanted to build a nuclear bomb, we would have done it a long time ago.

CORNISH: Is that true? Could've Iran built a nuclear bomb a long time ago?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's absolutely true that Iran has been much closer to building a nuclear weapon in the past. In fact, the entire reason for the Iran deal was that issue. Before the 2015 deal, Iran was within months, some even say weeks, of having enough uranium - enriched uranium to build a bomb. It had a lot of centrifuges spinning. And the deal basically worked - that they shelved centrifuges, they gave up uranium and they stretched that timeline back to about a year. Most experts agree - when the deal was in place, it would've taken a year to get the material.

CORNISH: Right. But after - that was before - right? - the U.S. pulled out of the deal. And now, of course, in retaliation, Iran has been stepping across limits set in the deal, especially Iran enriching uranium. How far away are they as of today? How does this affect the timeline?

BRUMFIEL: Right. That's a trickier question to answer because Iran has been stepping across these lines, but they've been mostly symbolic steps. They're not really enough to start significantly closing that one-year gap. I spoke to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. He does calculations on this kind of thing. He thinks right now, maybe if they went in an all-out sprint, they might be 10 months, maybe a few months less, from getting the material they need for a bomb. But that's all pretty fuzzy. What is clear is, as time goes on, Iran is going to be enriching more uranium, and that timeline will shrink. We will get less and less than a year.

CORNISH: How should we square all this with Iran's official policy that it does not believe in nuclear weapons?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Iran officially doesn't, but there's a lot of evidence that they've had a nuclear weapons program in the past. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said so. Documents taken by Israel from a warehouse in Tehran in 2018 showed that they had a weapons design, that they had foreign scientists helping them, that they had a plan to put it on a missile. And in fact, it was Iran that eventually decided to step back away from those plans and put their nuclear program on hold.

CORNISH: What's known about why?

BRUMFIEL: It's not entirely clear. One possibility is that they were fearful of economic sanctions. They are not only part of the Iran deal, but they're part of the non-proliferation treaty. If they violated that treaty, they could face very serious consequences. And clearly, they thought they could get some benefits, you know, such as the Iran deal. They could maybe see some sanctions lifted. And I think this is really the key question - is as we enter this period where there's more of a direct sort of military tension facing Iran - whether that calculus is going to change for the leadership in Tehran. They have honestly always had - well, not always - but they've had the technology for some time now to move ahead if they chose to and eventually get a weapon. It's going to be a political decision. And I think, you know, that's the big takeaway here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Thanks for your reporting.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.