President Trump announced today that the US would be pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was intended to slow and delay Iran's nuclear weapons production.
In his remarks at the White House, Trump described the deal as "horrible" and "one-sided," declaring that it should have never been made in the first place.
"At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction," Trump said – the fiction being that "a murderous regime" could have a civilian nuclear power program without making nuclear weapons.
This is a big decision with severe consequences (about as big and severe as a nuclear bomb), and right now, there are a lot of political voices fighting to make their opinion on the subject heard.
However, as astrophysicist and science communicator Ethan Siegel points out on his blog, Starts With A Bang, most of the people criticizing or applauding the withdrawal lack any expertise in nuclear physics, and barely anyone is talking about the actual, scientific facts.
Since the Iran nuclear deal was built on science, dismantling it should be based on science, too.
In 2015, the Secretary of State at the time, John Kerry, brought nuclear physicist and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz with him to Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal. The physicist Ali Akbar Salehi oversaw the agreement for Iran.
The negotiations pivoted around two scientific experts, with a deep understanding of how enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium are developed – two ingredients which can be used to create nuclear weapons.
Enriched uranium is created from overly-enriching the same uranium used in nuclear reactors. Whereas, weapons-grade plutonium is made from the bi product of nuclear reactors.
If a country is over-enriching uranium or producing weapons-grade or super-weapons-grade plutonium, it would give a strong indication of nuclear weapons production.
"It takes extraordinary expertise, including knowledge of the scientific and technological capabilities of the non-nuclear state, to perform the estimates and calculations accurately," wrote Siegel on his blog.
"If we get it right, and all sides act relatively responsibly, we could live in a world where many nations have access to the tremendous benefits that nuclear power brings, while still maintaining a level of global security that relies on those same nations not having access to nuclear bombs."
Combine that knowledge with extensive independent monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and you essentially have the Iran nuclear deal.
Without scientists, such a deal might never have come to fruition, and perhaps that's why it was heartily embraced by the scientific community.
"If you speak to analysts and objective folks who have studied these issues, studied the technical details, the science, the energy, I think that they feel very comfortable with this deal," said the White House deputy press secretary at the time, Eric Schultz.
Soon after, 29 of the nation's top scientists wrote President Obama, praising the Iran deal, calling it innovative and stringent. The names on the letter included experts in nuclear weapons and arms control, Nobel laureates and former White House science advisors.
Now, however, the President has decided to pull out of the deal without any expert advice from his chief science advisor – a position that still remains empty over a year into his presidency.
It's not like Trump is getting expert scientific advice from his Secretary of Energy, either. Unlike the past two secretaries, Trump's Secretary, Rick Perry, is not a prominent atomic and nuclear physicist. He also doesn't have an advanced degree in science.
"The decision to decertify was made without relevance to any fact, whatsoever, with respect to this agreement," said Kerry from Chatham House ahead of Trump's decision.
"The IAEA has certified that Iran has been meeting this agreement and has fully complied with the agreement eight separate times. There is no science, no fact, not any evidence whatsoever that would merit a decertification."
Former President Barack Obama also condemned the decision, calling it "a serious mistake."
Physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), called the decision "reckless" and "ill-conceived" in a recent press release.
But it's not just Democrats who do not like Trump's decision. According to The New York Times, the "president's own aides had already persuaded him three times not to dismantle the Iran deal."
Still, America is just one country within the deal. Other world leaders remain committed to the agreement, so the nuclear deal may continue to stand even if the US Congress approves Trump's withdrawal.
France, Germany, and the UK regret the U.S. decision to leave the JCPOA. The nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 8, 2018
While Iran has promised to preserve the nuclear deal even without America, in the past, the country has also said that it could quickly restart its nuclear program if the deal collapses.
So, according to science, how fast could Iran restart its nuclear weapons program?
First, Iran would need to restore the nearly 13,000 centrifuges that were dismantled and left unused after the deal. The centrifuges would be used to enrich more uranium, after the country was forced to ditch 95 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile under the terms of the 2015 deal.
Then, Iran would have to actually make the weapon. Before the 2015 deal, intelligence analysts predicted that Iran would need months to enrich enough uranium to create a weapon, and at the very least a year to develop a warhead and missile.
If these numbers still stand and if the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal causes the whole agreement to collapse, it's not inconceivable that Iran has nuclear weapons within the next few years.
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