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How Quickly Can Iran Get a Nuclear Weapon When Trump Kills the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Updated | President Donald Trump decided to reimpose sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, a move that ultimately ended U.S. participation in what is known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal.

"I am announcing today that the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal," Trump said Tuesday, adding that the U.S. may also sanction countries that do business with Iran.

"We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction, any country that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States," Trump said. "America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail... Powerful sanctions will go into full effect," he continued.

Following Trump's announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote via Twitter: "France, Germany and the U.K. regret the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake."

Democratic Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement: "Simply withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA will not benefit the American people and U.S. national security. It will only succeed in driving a wedge between us and our allies, whose help we need to enforce any future sanctions regime against Iran, and will effectively green-light Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Withdrawing from this agreement makes the United States, and the world, less secure.”

The deal, signed in 2015 after years of diplomacy and tough negotiations, agreed to lift economic sanction on Iran in exchange for a halt on the country’s nuclear energy program, which members of the international community feared could be used to create a nuclear weapon. It was signed by the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China, and Germany. The deal was also officially sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, making America’s withdrawal a violation of international law.

Even before the deal was signed, Iran had never formally declared that it was attempting to build a nuclear weapon. But international observers suspected that Tehran wasn’t entirely forthcoming about its nuclear program, and in 2006 the United Nations, U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions in an attempt to pressure Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal ultimately succeeded where the sanctions had failed. Under the deal, Iran gave up most of the key ingredients for building a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, some experts estimate that Iran could still develop a nuclear weapon within a year if the country’s leadership decided to abandon the Iran deal altogether and actively pursue weapons development.

“The best estimates are that their break-out time, the time from today to having one bomb's worth of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium, is 12 months. It would take exactly one year to have material for their first bomb if they go full steam ahead,” Matthew Kroenig, an arms control and nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek.

Countries need two ingredients for the production of nuclear weapons: plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Under the JCPOA, Iran gave up around 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium and pledged to enrich uranium at levels unsuitable for nuclear weapons production for the following 15 years. Uranium, for example, can be used for nuclear power purposes if it’s enriched at just 3 percent, but uranium must be enriched to 90 percent for weapons development.

Before the deal was signed, Iran had 20,000 centrifuges—devices that spin at greater speed— for uranium enrichment at two separate facilities. Under the JCPOA, Iran is permitted to enrich uranium to under 4 percent at only one site. Thousands of the country’s centrifuges are now in disuse, but Kroenig pointed out that it would be relatively easy for Iran to rehabilitate them.  

“It would be fairly easy for them because both of their two centrifuge sites are in operation, and one is enriching uranium,” Kroenig told Newsweek. “They didn't destroy the around 13,000 centrifuges that they aren’t using, and Iran was allowed to continue research and development on more sophisticated centrifuges. So in terms of getting the centrifuges back in place, it wouldn’t take long.”  

Several insiders said that killing the nuclear deal would incentivize Iran to begin testing the new centrifuges it has been developing. 

"If the deal falls apart, Iran will most likely resume uranium enrichment to the 20 percent level, which it can do much faster with newly developed IR-6 centrifuges," Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, told Newsweek. "Iran was allowed to continue research and development on IR-6 centrifuges but was not allowed testing them as per JCPOA. According to Iranian officials, it would take four days to reach 20 percent enrichment." 

Because of the JCPOA, Tehran is also banned from having plutonium reactors during that same 15-year time frame, and the country dismantled the plutonium reactor it did have following the deal’s implementation. The heavy-water plant near the Iranian city of Arak was redesigned so that it could not produce the type of plutonium needed for a nuclear weapon.  Some experts argued that, even if Iran decides to abandon the deal completely, it is unlikely that the country will take the steps necessary to build a weapons program in a year.

“For Iran to confront the United States with an actual nuclear weapons program that is active and moving forward, would require a set of decisions I don’t think they’ve made yet and would require years. They could lay down infrastructure that could be used, you could do that relatively quickly. But it doesn’t get you to a nuclear weapon,” Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek.

“Iran gave up a lot on implementation day. You can’t quickly reactivate the programs in the mountains, you can’t get back the reactor that you’ve modified. It would take time and require redesign. It would be hard for Iran to suddenly go back to this type of development. And even if they put together a fissile device, that doesn’t necessarily give them a bomb and it doesn’t mean the first test works,” Cordesman continued.

Further, international observers regularly visit the country to assess whether Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. So far, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have said that there is no evidence that Tehran is not complying with the deal.

But Trump is still unhappy with the 15-year limit. He claims that the limits will allow Iran to build a weapon later, even though the deal commits Iran to not pursuing nuclear weapons and notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency if and when it decides to build a nuclear facility. Trump also believes the deal didn’t go far enough to curb Iran’s influence in the wider Middle East and stop it from testing conventional ballistic missiles.

European allies such as Germany's Angela Merkel argue that the current deal is better than no deal, even if it has flaws. Nevertheless, Trump has slammed the JCPOA on numerous occasions and said that it should never have been made.

It is unclear exactly how the other signatories of the deal will respond to Trump’s Tuesday announcement. Russia and Iran have already signaled that they plan to continue forward with the deal without the U.S., a fact that would further solidify their alliance. Ultimately, it is also likely Trump’s announcement will provide fodder for hard-liners in Iran who want to prove that the U.S. is an enemy determined to sabotage their country’s future.

"What will follow next will depend on the remaining parties and their take on U.S. behavior," Tabatabai told Newsweek. "If Europe, China and Russia manage to secure concrete economic, political and security dividends for Iran, the JCPOA could survive even if the U.S. left."

The updated version of this article contains reactions from France's President Emmanuel Macron and Warner. 

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