How Close Is Iran to a Nuclear Bomb? France Warns World May Have Less Than 2 Years

The French foreign minister has warned that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in one to two years if it does not return to compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which both Washington and Tehran have said they will no longer adhere to.

Jean-Yves Le Drian issued the warning Friday as European foreign ministers met in Brussels to try and save the JCPOA, France 24 reported. The Obama-era deal placed limits on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 arguing it was too lenient.Since then, Iran has begun to gradually push through the deal's restrictions. And last week, following the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone, Tehran announced it would no longer respect the JCPOA at all.

"If they continue with unravelling the Vienna agreement, then yes, within a fairly short period of time, between one and two years, they could have access to a nuclear weapon, which is not an option", Le Drian told RTL radio.

The deal's remaining signatories—France, Germany, the U.K., China, Russia and the European Union—have all said they will continue to support the agreement, even as it unravels under pressure from its two most important participants.

The Trump administration has embarked on a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, reintroducing crippling economic sanctions to try and force Tehran back to the negotiating table.

The White House wants a new deal to include restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program and its regional influence, which has seen Tehran establish multiple powerful proxy forces across the Middle East and become a key player in the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

But Iran has decided to weather the economic storm and resist Washington's demands. After Soleimani's death, Iran said it would no longer respect the limits put in place to prevent it from building stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium—both needed for a nuclear weapon.

Uranium must be enriched to between 3 and 4 percent to be used for nuclear power plant fuel, but it must be enriched to around 90 percent for use in weapons.

The JCPOA limited Iran to a stockpile of 660 pounds of low-enriched uranium. Iran has so far maintained it has no interest in nuclear weapons, but adversaries like the U.S. and Israel remain skeptical.

The JCPOA set a 10-year limit of 3.67 percent enrichment and a stockpile limit of around 660 pounds for 15 years. Enrichment requires centrifuges, but the JCPOA cut the number Iran can use from 20,000 over two sites to 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges at only one site.

The JCPOA also limited Iran's ability to produce plutonium by limiting its access to heavy water, needed to produce the radioactive element. The deal said Iran could not build any new heavy-water reactors for 15 years, while only stockpiling some 143 tons of heavy water.

For a bomb, Iran would first need to enrich uranium to 90 percent and then expand its stockpile to four times that allowed by the JCPOA. This will take time, but the Iran's "breakout" time to a nuclear weapon has been shrinking—though slowly—since it stopped adhering to the JCPOA's limits.

If Iran stuck to the JCPOA for 10 years, it was estimated it would take at least 12 months to go from adhering to the agreement's limitations to a nuclear weapon, PolitiFact explained.

Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told the website that Iran is now maybe as little as 11 months from a weapon.

Nephew did however, note that outside factors may slow Tehran's progress. Indeed, Iran may wish to temper its own progress to avoid diplomatic—or even military—blow back.

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A man holds a Iranian flag during an anti-war protest, at Times Square in New York on January 4, 2020. - Demonstrators are protesting the US drone attack which killed Iran's Major General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on January 3, a dramatic escalation in spiralling tensions between Iran and the US, which pledged to send thousands more troops to the region. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty