Can the West Stop Iran's Nuclear Ambitions or Is It Too Late?

"If Tehran decides to develop a nuclear arsenal, it can produce enough uranium for weapons in less than a week. Building a bomb would probably take six months to a year," said Kelsey Davenport, policy director at the Association for arms control

by Sededin Dedovic
Can the West Stop Iran's Nuclear Ambitions or Is It Too Late?
© Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

From the time when Iran's supreme leader considered nuclear weapons un-Islamic to today, much has changed. Tehran has gone through different phases in its policy towards nuclear weapons, with its positions changing several times.

In the past, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons, but today the situation is completely different. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still at the top of the regime, but nuclear weapons are no longer a taboo subject.

Moreover, Iran maintains that its nuclear program exists only for civilian purposes, rejecting accusations that it plans to use its nuclear resources for military purposes. However, the international community is not without concerns.

Although U.S. intelligence maintains that Iran is not currently undertaking key activities in the development of nuclear weapons, there are signs to the contrary. For example, Iran has ramped up production of highly enriched uranium at the underground Fordow plant, a key ingredient in atomic bombs.

UN inspectors noted a dramatic increase in the amount of enriched uranium from 2019 to February 2024. This activity, along with the expansion of the Fordou plant, is causing concern among international officials. The nuclear deal signed in 2015 was supposed to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from Western sanctions.

However, the withdrawal of the US from the agreement under the Donald Trump administration in 2018, along with the renewal of sanctions, led to further tensions. Early in Joseph Biden's presidency, there was an effort to revive the deal, but it collapsed in the face of Iranian resistance and a lack of political will in the US.

This handout image supplied by the IIPA (Iran International Photo Agency) shows a view of the reactor building at the Russian-bu© Handout / Getty Images

Under the deal, Iran agreed to strict limits under which it pledged that it could not make enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb.

The number of enriched uranium remains well below the level, but is increasing. Kelsey Davenport is the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, where she focuses on the nuclear and missile programs in Iran and North Korea and on international efforts to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

"Iran is very close to nuclear weapons and can quickly build a bomb. If Tehran decides to develop a nuclear arsenal, it can produce enough uranium for weapons in less than a week. Building the bomb would likely take six months to a year — but that process would take place in secret, undeclared locations, making detection and tracking difficult," said Kelsey Davenport, director of policy at the Arms Control Association.

"Iran will pay a high price for developing nuclear weapons, so it will not take this decision lightly. Escalating tensions between Israel and Iran increase the risk that Tehran will determine that nuclear weapons are necessary for its security, especially if Israel responds to the April 13 attack," Davenport said.

Irans controversial heavy water production facility is seen in this general view, October 27, 2004 at Arak, south of the Iranian© Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

The new administration under the leadership of Joseph Biden has expressed a desire to renew the deal, but Iranian resistance and a lack of political will in the US have created obstacles to reaching a deal.

UN inspectors face difficulties in accessing key facilities in Iran's nuclear program, further hampering international oversight. "The bottom line is that Iran's nuclear program has advanced dramatically and with far less international oversight than at any time in history since the US withdrew from the deal," said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

What prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Although Tehran claims that it does not want to use it, the possibility of having a nuclear arsenal represents a kind of political and military power. Still, Iranian officials suggest they have the ability to build a bomb if they choose to, though such a move would have serious consequences.

Geopolitical factors also play a role in this story. Donald Trump's return to the US political scene, as well as Russia's support for Iran, further complicate the situation. Vladimir Putin has deepened Russian ties with Iran after the invasion of Ukraine, which is creating new dynamics in the region.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told Putin that Tehran's attacks on Israel are limited and that the Islamic Republic is not interested in escalation. The question is whether the West can stop Iran in its nuclear ambitions.

Western influence is not at an enviable level and the chances of the agreement being revived are small or non-existent. "The time has passed when the United States could put a deal on the table and stabilize the nuclear crisis and prevent further escalation," Davenport believes.