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New Signs Iran is Creeping Closer to Making a Nuclear Bomb

Iran’s regime likes anniversaries. This month it celebrated 40 years since the U.S. embassy hostage crisis by unveiling new nuclear centrifuges and redoing anti-American murals at the site of the former embassy. In May, it marked one year since the United States left the 2015 nuclear deal by beginning its own steady departure from the agreement.

But the past week’s anniversary surprise is much more momentous. On Nov. 5, Tehran announced it would reactivate its Fordow enrichment facility, almost exactly a decade after United Nations inspectors demanded Iran close the recently discovered, illegally constructed site. Just as Fordow rang alarm bells back then, this latest news must spur more concerted efforts to address Iran’s accelerating approach to nuclear weapons.

This is the fourth in Iran’s unfolding series of ultimatums for Europe to offset the pain of U.S. sanctions, otherwise Tehran increasingly violates the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) every 60 days. The first escalations in May and July upped its uranium stockpile and enrichment level, initiating gradual reductions in the “breakout” time to produce enough fissile material for a bomb.

As the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) assessed this summer, by themselves these moves – although concerning – would still enable inspectors to detect a breakout attempt for the foreseeable future.

But since then, Tehran has ratcheted up as U.S. sanctions multiplied. In September, it began enriching with newer, more productive centrifuges. This is driving Iran toward an industrial-scale nuclear program – not overnight, but no longer over the horizon, either.

And now Fordow. While Iran’s specific plans remain unclear, simply reverting to the site’s pre-JCPOA configuration would further shrink breakout time, if only marginally. The facility is smaller than the enrichment plant at Natanz, and it only ever housed first-generation centrifuges.

But Fordow is worrisome for multiple reasons independent of how it is reactivated. Fordow is better designed and built than Natanz to withstand bunker busters – helping explain why the JCPOA prohibits enrichment there, but not at Natanz.

This also helps explain why Tehran chose Fordow for producing 20 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) prior to the deal. Any uranium enriched above this level is considered suitable for a nuclear weapon, and thus raises the risk of provoking a military response.

Currently Iran has said it will only enrich to 4.5 percent LEU at Fordow, but this must be monitored extremely closely. Twenty percent enrichment would likely resume here, as Iranian officials have threatened, and would entail interconnecting “tandem” centrifuge cascades.

This would cut breakout time far more precipitously than any move thus far, but it also likely would be detected by inspectors. Therefore, any attempt to block inspectors, as the regime has mulled recently, would be equally alarming.

These concerns also must be placed in a larger strategic context. By itself, no single escalation to date would put Iran on the precipice of a bomb without appreciable advance warning. Yet aggregated over time, the sum of these violations already has cut breakout time appreciably since May, and will continue doing so.

Such estimates entail multiple assumptions, but Tehran’s breakout time already has fallen from roughly 11 to 12 months under the JCPOA to potentially seven to eight months now. At this rate, Iran is less than a year away from an undetectable “sneakout” capability. It could reach this threshold sooner if it deploys more advanced centrifuges, as it has since September, or escalates further at the next 60-day deadline in early January.

These moves serve Iran’s pressure campaign, also playing out on the ground in the Middle East, to compel sanctions relief and build negotiating leverage for a new deal. Accordingly, Tehran insists it will reverse its nuclear moves only after sanctions are lifted or as part of talks, not before as the United States demands.

Indeed, Iran only came to the table in the first place after the discovery of Fordow in 2009 generated initial international consensus for tough sanctions.

But today is different. The United States is approaching a sanctions ceiling, having already accreted such measures against nearly every aspect of Iran’s economy and regime. Meanwhile Tehran is nowhere near its ceiling for nuclear and regional escalation, especially if the diminishing impact of additional sanctions is the only deterrent.

As Iran began enriching near 20 percent at Fordow in 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a literal red line before the world, with the implicit threat of preventive military action. Tehran took the hint and deflected its own progress toward a bomb.

Now American policymakers are racing against the shortening shadow of Iran’s nuclear progress, whether or not talks occur. Taking a page from Netanyahu’s speech, the United States can give itself real diplomatic leverage, and prevent Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, only by developing credible military deterrence against Tehran or bolstering Israel’s ability to do so.

Originally published in The Hill.