Iran could still produce enough nuclear material to fuel a bomb in as little as two months, a timeframe that has not been prolonged under the recently struck agreement to extend nuclear talks through November, according to experts.
As negotiators spend the next several months attempting to strike a final deal with Tehran over its nuclear program, concerns are mounting in Congress about the United States’ inability to detect a covert breakout and prevent it from taking place.
U.S. intelligence reports—including those authored by the Pentagon and others—have determined that the United States is not "organized or fully equipped" to detect when foreign countries are developing weapons or secretly advancing their programs.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Iran is known to have secret nuclear sites where it hides rogue enrichment activities, an issue that has not yet been covered in nuclear talks with the West.
"Everything this nuclear agreement is based upon is under the assumption that Iran has been completely transparent with us and has identified every aspect of its nuclear program to us," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview last week, just hours before President Obama signed off on the extension in talks. "Yet for two decades Iran was operating a covert nuclear program that we knew nothing about and were unable to detect."
"We have no reason to believe Iran has given up its covert attempts at building the bomb, and we have every reason to suspect that it is dual tracking with a military or other covert operation even while the P5+1 [group of negotiators] continue these negotiations," Ros-Lehtinen warned.
Pentagon officials have told Ros-Lehtinen and other lawmakers "that the U.S. doesn’t have the ability to detect or locate undeclared or covert nuclear programs," she said. "That is why it is so crucial that we do not extend this agreement and that the president does not ease any of the sanctions in place, but that we implement even more sanctions on the regime until it really does abandon all nuclear ambitions."
The Pentagon concluded in January that the U.S. intelligence community is not equipped to pinpoint "undeclared facilities" and "covert operations." In many cases, detection techniques are "either inadequate, or more often, do not exist," the report stated.
While the White House has touted progress in the talks and announced what it called significant new concessions by Iran, the regime could still hit the critical breakout capacity in around two months, a figure reconfirmed by Western experts in recent days.
Intelligence officials also have pointed to Syria as a prime example of the West’s failure to spot nuclear programs before they ramp up.
Iran’s case is even more complex due to its concerted efforts to hide its activities and obfuscate them when international inspectors are permitted access to a limited number of sites.
Iran continues to improve its ability to keep some of its nuclear activities secret, despite requirements in the interim nuclear deal to increase transparency.
"There have been successes in finding secret Iranian sites but we know they are getting better at this," David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), told the Daily Beast in November, when the interim deal was first struck. "They are better at keeping better secrets, better at compartmentalization of their program and they are better at cyber security."
Albright’s ISIS further determined in July of last year that Iran would have the technical capability to produce weapons-grade uranium by the middle part of this year.
Ongoing U.S. efforts to push Iran into removing its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium are another sign that Tehran already has the technical expertise to enrich the nuclear material to very high levels.
"Iran is expected to achieve a critical capability in mid-2014, which is defined as the technical capability to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium from its safeguarded stocks of low enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive, without being detected," ISIS wrote in its July 2013 report. "Iran would achieve this capability principally by implementing its existing, firm plans to install thousands more IR-1 centrifuges, and perhaps a few thousand IR-2m centrifuges, at its declared Natanz and Fordow centrifuge sites."
Iran has already installed some of these newer, more advanced centrifuges at its enrichment sites, forcing U.S. negotiators to extract promises on this front.
Iran committed under the extension deal to only use these advanced centrifuges to replace damaged machines, a move the White House deemed as "an important step forward" over the weekend.
Iran’s right to domestically enrich has emerged as one of the key disputes in negotiations.
While the White House has conceded that Iran will likely be permitted some sort of domestic enrichment rights—something that many in Congress oppose—conversations appear to be about just how much enrichment will take place.
Iran’s foreign minister and chief negotiator Javad Zarif warned the West on Tuesday that they only have a limited amount of time to strike a deal with Tehran.
"In this round of the nuclear negotiations, I felt that the other side was listening to our words and thinking about them, and that the G5+1 has come to this conclusion that it doesn’t have an everlasting time and chance for an agreement with Iran," Zarif was quoted as saying in the Iranian press.
Congress is already wary of the talks and has tried multiple times to increase pressure on Iran, prompting fierce backlash from the White House, which opposes all new sanctions legislation during talks.
"President Obama knows that there is staunch opposition in Congress to any easing of sanctions against the Iranian regime until it takes concrete and verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear program," Ros-Lehtinen told the Free Beacon prior to the extension deal being formally announced.
"If the president opts to extend the nuclear agreement with Iran—again, without congressional consent—he is sure to offer additional concessions to the Iranians, playing right into their hands," she added. "His meaning of ‘consulting with Congress’ is to tell us he is going to use waiver authority to unilaterally ease or lift sanctions."
Ros-Lehtinen’s predictions were correct. The White House has promised to give Iran another $2.8 billion in cash assets and continue to rollback sanctions on Iran’s oil trade and other sectors.