Iran will have a sufficient amount of enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb by the end of the year, according to Israeli army intelligence estimates for 2020.
However, the Israeli army believes that at this stage, Tehran does not posses a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and would need at least two years to develop such capabilities.
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56
The United States' exit from the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 brings intelligence officials to estimate that Iran's nuclear program is running again after years of not violating the agreement. Israel's security establishment has assessed that by the end of 2020, Iran will have the required amount of enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb.
On June 17, Iran said that it would surpass the deal's 300-kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium, and quadrupled its production. It also threatened to raise enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if the three European countries that still support the 2015 agreement didn't offer a new deal.
Under the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium and submit to UN inspections in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. But U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in May 2018, and has imposed increasingly tough U.S. sanctions to pressure Iran to negotiate a better deal, and the United States has threatened sanctions against countries that trade with Iran.
Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani's death is a stabilizing event in the region for the near future, and despite its lack of impact on Iran's consolidation in Syria and Iraq, intelligence officials believe it will be appropriate to preserve and even expand what is known as "the campaign between the wars" in order to stabilize the new year's threats against Israel.
Tehran is facing one of its most challenging periods, according to the assessment, which said its leadership will have to face some critical choices in the coming year which will impact the country's future. It is believes that, for the first time in many years, Iranians no longer hold religion in high regard as a facet of their civilian life.
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Information obtained by Israeli intelligence shows that continued protests point to frustration with the Iranian leadership's failure to improve its citizens' quality of life.
Intelligence evaluations reveal that by the end of the current year, Iran will have the 40 kilograms of 90% enriched uranium needed to produce a single nuclear bomb. The information available to the defense establishment indicates that Iran is currently at four percent enrichment. By mid-year will reach 20 percent enrichment, which is 70% of the bomb production process, and by the end of the year, Iran will be able to reach the required amount of enriched uranium for one bomb.
However, even if Iran possesses the amount of uranium needed for the bomb, it would also have to pass another obstacle and produce nuclear warhead launch capabilities. The IDF estimates that at this stage it does not possess the missiles that can carry the explosive head and no capability research and experimentation has been conducted.
It's also believed that reaching such capabilities will require at least two years of development and production.
The security establishment is operating with the assumption that Iran is developing or may develop such a missile even if in secret, not known to intelligence organizations.
The Intelligence Directorate noted in its assessment that despite Iran's declarations of its intention to create the bomb, the Iranian authorities still want all countries, especially the United States, to return to the nuclear agreement.
Analysis by Israeli intelligence agencies raised the possibility that Iran may make tough decisions regarding the future of the nuclear program, as it sees the plan as a way to defend its more important goal: the dissemination of the Islamic revolution.
The United States has made it clear on more than one occasion that it will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, and that the government in Tehran will be required to make decisions again this year.
Last month, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said, "We understand that the possibility of reaching a conflict or more than that against Iran is not an unreasonable one," He added that "Iran, despite the nuclear program's restrictions, continues to produce missiles coming into our territory and has doubled its enriched uranium."
"As long as there is no response to the expansion of the nuclear program, at some point it may leave the realm of strategic dialogue and move to a real capability, that from now on a bomb can be built," said Kochavi.
The IDF’s psychological profile of Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei says he tries to avoid difficult decisions. Nevertheless, the assessment said, developments in Iran and the broader Middle East could force him to do so.
Iran’s economic distress and the resultant popular demonstrations are pressuring the regime. Tehran understands that breaking all the rules on the nuclear issue could lead even China and Russia, which buy oil from Iran, to stop doing so, and that could cause Iran to collapse economically.
The Iranian regime understands that continuing down the path to a nuclear weapon would lead various parties to see it as a significant threat and use all options on the table, including that of military force, against it, the assessment said. Washington has made clear more than once that it won’t let Iran acquire nuclear weapons, and Tehran understands the implications of that. Consequently, it will have to make some decisions sometime this year.
The U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani delayed the presentation of the IDF’s intelligence assessment to relevant government officials. Military Intelligence said Soleimani’s death was a blow to Iran and Hezbollah that will shape developments in the region, at least in the near future. The ramifications of killing Soleimani, who was considered the father of Iran’s efforts to entrench itself beyond its borders, are unpredictable, the assessment said, but they will certainly be significant.
Of Iran’s $115 billion budget for 2020, 65 percent is slated to come from oil sales. But because of the sanctions on Iran, it managed to earn just $10 billion from oil sales last year, leaving it with a revenue shortfall of $50 billon. This makes it difficult for Iran to do much, despite the threats of senior regime officials.
America’s decision to end the waivers that initially let Tehran export oil despite the sanctions has been a serious blow, the assessment noted. In September 2019, Iran exported just 300,000 barrels of oil a day, down from 2.8 million in April 2018. If its exports drop below 600,000 barrels a day, it will be heading for economic collapse.
A more independent Hezbollah
For Tehran, Iraq is more important than Syria, since it serves as a security buffer for Iran. Thus the assessment predicted that Iran will try to preserve and bolster its hold on Iraq and turn it into a launching pad for military action against those it views as enemies
But the death of Soleimani, a charismatic figure frequently hosted by world leaders, is expected to erode the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ influence with Russia, Syria and Hezbollah, the assessment said.
Hezbollah was Soleimani’s flagship project, and with his death, it has lost the backing of one of the most powerful people in Iran. This may also reduce the economic support it gets from Iran.
Military intelligence predicts that Soleimani’s death will force Hezbollah to become more independent. This could lead it to become much more involved in Lebanon’s domestic affairs, including in cases where it is asked to act on Iran’s behalf.
Hezbollah is focused mainly on Israel. According to the intelligence assessment, it doesn’t want war with Israel and is still deterred.
Nevertheless, Israel’s assumption is that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will do everything in his power to retaliate for every Israeli operation on Lebanese soil, as happened last year. In August, the IDF thwarted a drone strike launched by the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds force from Syria, and according to foreign reports, it then attacked an Iranian facility in Beirut that was making precision components for Hezbollah missiles. In response, Hezbollah fired an antitank missile at an IDF vehicle on the northern border about a week later.
The assessment revealed a disagreement among intelligence professionals about how significant Hezbollah’s project to increase the accuracy of its missiles – which Israel views as a strategic threat – actually is to the organization. Today, Hezbollah has several dozen precision missiles, but the assessment said this doesn’t give it significant operational capability.
Some of the professionals argued that Hezbollah isn’t interesting in pursue its precision project at the cost of a possible war with Israel, and that it was doing so until now mainly because Soleimani demanded that it obtain precision missile capability and provided funding for this purpose. But others said Hezbollah will continue the project anyway, with the goal of achieving a balance of deterrence against Israel.
The failed drone attack from Syria last August also demonstrated the strong connection between the Iranian and Lebanese fronts, the assessment said. Hezbollah was involved in preparing it, even though it was a response to an airstrike on Iranian forces in Iraq that had been attributed to Israel.
Nasrallah, the assessment added, was surprised that Israel retaliated by attacking it in Lebanon. But that’s precisely why military intelligence believes he will be determined to preserve the equation in which every attack on Lebanon brings a retaliation, even if he knows it will cause an escalation that could lead to war.