The improvement in Iran's technical ability to develop nuclear weapons is the result of a number of steps Tehran has taken during the past year to increase its nuclear activity, all of which constitute clear violations of the terms Tehran agreed under the JCPOA. (Image source: iStock)
The most likely outcome of US President Joe Biden's ill-considered attempt to revive the nuclear deal with Iran is that it will lead to a dramatic reduction in the time frame Tehran requires to build an atomic warhead.
One of the central goals of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) struck with Iran by former US President Barack Obama was to delay Tehran's ability to develop nuclear weapons for more than a decade.
At the time the deal was agreed in 2015, intelligence experts predicted it would take it Iran about one year to develop the technological know-how to develop a nuclear warhead if Iran was allowed to continue with its nuclear activities.
In an attempt to slow Iran's research into nuclear weapons, the JCPOA required Tehran to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. For the next 15 years, Iran would only enrich uranium up to 3.67%.
Yet, despite the JCPOA being in force for nearly six years, the latest estimates suggest that Iran is only a matter of months away from having the ability to produce sufficient quantities of weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear warhead.
A report published by the Institute of Science and International Security this week predicts a "worst case scenario" of 2.3 months for Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium (WGU) for one nuclear weapon.
"Iran could produce a second significant quantity of WGU early in the fifth month after breakout commences, and a third quantity could be produced early in the seventh month," the report concludes.
The improvement in Iran's technical ability to develop nuclear weapons is the result of a number of steps Tehran has taken during the past year to increase its nuclear activity, all of which constitute clear violations of the terms Tehran agreed under the JCPOA.
Iran's most serious breach of the accord took place on April 16 when Iran began enriching uranium, a key component in the production of nuclear warheads, at 60 percent purity for the first time -- just below the threshold required for nuclear warheads. In addition, Iran has said it will increase the number of sophisticated centrifuges, the sophisticated devices used for uranium enrichment, at its Natanz facility to 5,000.
Biden administration officials insist these moves by Iran, which Tehran says have been taken in response to the previous Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018, are nothing more than a bargaining ploy to increase pressure on Washington to make further concessions at the latest round of talks taking place in Vienna on reviving the nuclear deal.
There is growing concern within Western intelligence circles, however, that any advances Iranian scientists achieve by accelerating the country's nuclear programme will result in them gaining vital technical knowledge that cannot be erased. Iran's scientists would be able to retain their nuclear know-how even in the unlikely event that the Vienna negotiations result in a new deal whereby Iran agrees to lower its enrichment levels and make substantial reductions to the number of its operational centrifuges.
The rapid advances Iran is making in its nuclear programme were acknowledged earlier this week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who conceded that the "breakout time" Iran requires to move from conducting nuclear research to developing nuclear warheads could soon be reduced from months "to a matter of weeks."
During a meeting with the US House of Representatives on Monday, Mr Blinken warned that Iran's nuclear programme was "galloping forward... The longer this goes on, the more the breakout time gets down ... it's now down, by public reports, to a few months at best. And if this continues, it will get down to a matter of weeks."
By highlighting the dramatic reductions in Iran's "breakout time", Mr Blinken was seeking to justify the Biden administration's decision to invest so much political capital in seeking to revive the JCPOA.
Mr Blinken was nevertheless forced to concede that, even though indirect talks have been taking place between the US and Iran in Vienna since April, the US still does not know whether Iran has any genuine intention of resuming compliance with the agreement.
Furthermore, with Iran's hardliners set to consolidate their control over the regime in this month's presidential elections, which are due to take place on June 18, Western diplomats are becoming increasingly sceptical about the prospect of concluding a new agreement with Tehran.
Ebrahim Raisi, the candidate who is seen as the favourite to replace Iran's outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, is a renowned hardliner whose candidacy has attracted the support of both the regime's all-powerful Guardian Council, as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Raisi, a close ally of the country's 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has previously served as the head of Iran's judiciary and made his name during the 1980s as a prominent member of Iran's notorious Death Commissions, when opposition activists were either executed or sent to clear minefields during the Iran-Iraq war.
Consequently, if the predictions are correct and Raisi emerges triumphant in the presidential elections, the prospects of the hardliners making any tangible concessions over the country's nuclear programme will be negligible.
As a result, the only achievement of Mr Obama's deeply-flawed nuclear deal with Iran will have been to enable the ayatollahs to achieve their dream of acquiring nuclear weapons, with all the implications that will have for the future security of the globe.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.