According to a new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran increased the rate of its production of near weapons-grade uranium (60% uranium-235) in late November 2023. This increase ended a slowdown of Iran’s 60% uranium enrichment that began in mid-2023 and increased the number of nuclear weapons it could theoretically make and the amount of time to construct them.
Iran’s recent ramp-up of uranium enrichment followed warnings last year that the number of nuclear weapons Iran could construct has become dangerously high.
A March 2023 assessment report by the Institute for Science and International Security indicated that Iran could enrich enough weapons-grade uranium (90% uranium-235) for one nuclear weapon in 12 days. In mid-November, the Institute assessed Iran was capable of making enough weapons-grade uranium “for six nuclear weapons in one month, eight in two months, ten in three months, eleven in four months, and twelve in five months.”
Iran enriching uranium beyond the 60% level is reportedly a red line for Israel and could trigger Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Although it is not clear whether or when Iran will make the jump to weapons-grade enrichment, alarms were raised in mid-November that Iran has taken steps to prevent the IAEA from detecting just such a move when it barred the agency’s most experienced and expert inspectors from entering the country. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi called this “a serious blow” to his agency’s capability to conduct meaningful inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
This means Iran could start enriching uranium to weapons-grade at any time without being detected.
If Iran took this step, any weapons-grade uranium it enriched would be in the form of a gaseous uranium compound that would need to be processed into uranium metal to fuel a nuclear weapon. This would take about a year. Iran would probably conduct one or two underground nuclear tests before adding a nuclear weapon to its arsenal. Any one of these moves could trigger Israeli airstrikes.
An Enormous Biden National Security Failure
The most damning element of this story is that Iran did not begin enriching uranium to near-weapons grade until Joe Biden became president.
Biden entered office determined to restore the deeply flawed Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama Administration, which President Trump withdrew from in 2018. Shortly after the administration initiated multilateral nuclear talks in 2021 to revive the JCPOA, Iran started enriching uranium to the 60% level, probably to gain leverage in the talks.
Instead of halting the nuclear talks because of this development, the U.S. and its European allies ignored it and continued to offer Iran concessions. Despite the U.S. offering Iran increasingly generous concessions, negotiations collapsed in June 2022. The concessions offered by the U.S. to Iran were so extravagant that three members of the Biden Administration’s negotiation team at the nuclear talks resigned in late January 2022. Several attempts in the second half of 2022 by the U.S. and European states to negotiate an interim nuclear deal with Iran also failed.
This situation took a stunning turn for the worse in the spring of 2023 when the Biden Administration agreed to a secret deal with Iran that “froze” Iran’s uranium enrichment at 60%. By striking this agreement, the Biden Administration knowingly legitimized Iran’s uranium enrichment at a near weapons-grade level. This also means Iran’s recent increased 60% enrichment is consistent with its commitment to the Biden Administration.
Acceleration of Iran’s Nuclear Program Likely to Continue in Run-Up to 2024 U.S. Election
Driven by a global perception of President Biden’s weak leadership and incompetent foreign policy, provocations by Iran and its proxy groups have grown in recent months. These include the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, a sharp increase in attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxy groups, and attacks against Israel and Red Sea shipping by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, another Iranian proxy.
A growing belief that President Biden could lose the 2024 presidential election will probably cause Middle East security to deteriorate further this year as America’s enemies in the region attempt to exploit Biden’s weakness before he is replaced next January by a more decisive president with a more effective foreign policy.
Concerning Iran’s recent expanded production of near weapons-grade uranium, this probably represented Tehran exploiting American weakness under President Biden and was intended to challenge the United States as well as advance its nuclear weapons program. It was also likely an Iranian ploy to pressure the Biden Administration to resume nuclear talks and offer more concessions.
With Iranian leaders believing that the Biden Administration could end in early 2025, there likely will be more significant advances in Iran’s nuclear program this year to take advantage of the current administration’s weak foreign policy and to pursue a possible last chance to revive the JCPOA on terms favorable to Iran.
It is therefore crucial that Congress be on the lookout in 2024 for any desperate last-minute attempt by the Biden Administration to strike another dangerous nuclear deal with Iran and demand the immediate halt of any such effort.
Because of the above factors, as we approach the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the Middle East will become more unstable, and Iran will get closer to having a nuclear weapon. Although I believe this is unlikely, if Iran were to cross any Israeli “red lines” on its nuclear program, this could trigger Israeli airstrikes against Iran and result in a regional war.
This is another solemn reminder of why competent leadership by U.S. presidents is critical for global security and why U.S. presidential elections matter.
Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst, and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.