A prominent group of former senior State Department officials warned Monday that Iran is coming dangerously close to achieving a nuclear weapon as negotiations with Western nations come to a standstill ahead of Tehran’s June 14 presidential elections.
By August, when Iran’s next president is set to assume office, it could take Tehran just nine days to enrich enough uranium needed to fuel a nuclear weapon, former Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman said during a discussion at the National Press Club about Iran’s upcoming election and the impact on its nuclear ambitions.
Edelman and other former top officials warned that Iran’s elections are unlikely to alter its nuclear calculus.
"We’re getting to the zone where talking about a breakout capability is not a flight of fancy but rapidly approaching," said Edelman, who also served as a former under secretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration.
Iran has amassed a large stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, the main component in a nuclear weapon.
This is more "than they could ever possibly need," Edelman said. "In the last three months, in essence, they’ve produced as much [uranium] as they produced in the last six years."
This means that Iran could amass "a bomb’s worth" of 20 percent nuclear enriched uranium "in a few months," according to Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
The event was held to announce JINSA’s newly assembled Joint Iranian Task Force comprised of Edelman, Makovsky, and several other longtime government insiders.
There is evidence in addition to uranium that Iran’s plutonium-based nuclear reactor is set to go online by late 2014 or early 2015, giving Tehran another route to a nuclear weapon.
"Here we may discover we’re spending all our time trying to shut down the enrichment while the Iranians have a route to a plutonium weapon," Edelman said.
"The fact of the matter is they’re pursuing a two track approach that gives them a range of options to do this and do it very quickly and safe guard themselves until they get to this point," added Dennis Ross, a former top adviser at the State Department and Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton.
As Iran’s nuclear program continues to progress, talks with Western nations have all but stalled ahead of the presidential election.
The Obama administration is not expected to push the issue until sometime after the next Iranian president is elected, according to Ross.
Iran’s consistent nuclear progress is "creating a reality where there is going to be increasing pressure to deal with this" issue soon, said Ross, explaining that the Obama administration is not likely to wait until the new president assumes office in August.
"Once the elections are over, you’re likely to see the administration become more active on the Iranian issue," Ross said. "I suspect you’re going to see … more attention given to Iran partly because of the march of the program but also partly because on Syria the administration has adopted a position" of inaction.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has permitted seven candidates to run for election, all of whom are loyal regime insiders.
The election is rigged to ensure Khamenei’s top choice wins the vote despite the moderate amount of choice for voters, the experts said.
"This is an election the regime tried very hard to dampen enthusiasms and dampen public participation," said Ray Takeyh, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran.
Should the Iranian public become too invested in the results, they could mount popular protests if evidence of vote rigging emerges, Takeyh noted.
Since all of the Iranian presidential candidates fully back Khamenei’s nuclear ambitions, none are likely to alter Tehran’s relationship with the West when it comes to this issue.
"We’re now coming to the end of the [nuclear] timeline," Stephen Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said.
"They’ve got decades worth of [enriched uranium] fuel now," he said. "This has nothing to do with the Tehran research reactor but everything to do with pressuring us."
At some point in the near future, the United States will lose the ability to detect in advance a fully built Iranian nuke.
"For how much longer will we have that confidence that we can detect" a weapon, Rademaker asked. "The amount of time they’ll need is diminishing … and at some point it will disappear entirely."