French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that Iran could have nuclear weapons in one or two years if Tehran continues to violate a landmark nuclear accord with world powers.
The country's top diplomat made the statement ahead of a January 10 emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers, which comes amid mounting tensions between Iran and the United States following the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in an air strike in Baghdad last week and a subsequent Iranian missile attack on U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran pledged to curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for international sanctions relief. The agreement between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China as well as the European Union was signed in October 2015 in Vienna.
However, Tehran has taken what it has described as "steps toward" abrogating the JCPOA since President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that the United States was withdrawing from it and reimposing tough sanctions on Iran.
"If they continue with unraveling the Vienna agreement, then yes, within a fairly short period of time, between one and two years, they could have access to a nuclear weapon, which is not an option," Le Drian said on German radio station RTL on January 10.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, and the JCPOA allows the country to run reactors to generate power.
Trump said the agreement was insufficient and should be renegotiated because it didn't address Iran's ballistic missile program or its involvement in regional conflicts.
Meanwhile, the reimposition of sanctions has taken a toll on Iran's economy, and sent its currency into a downward spiral.
The EU has said it will "spare no effort" to keep the nuclear deal alive, despite the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Before the 2015 agreement, some experts estimated that Iran was within five to six months of being able to produce a nuclear bomb, while others said that could happen within two to three months.
With the JCPOA safeguards in place, the break-out time was estimated to be more than a year.
But after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Iran has breached its main limitations, exceeding the stockpiles of heavy water and uranium allowed, the number and types of centrifuges it can operate to enrich uranium, and the purity of uranium.
The agreement caps uranium enrichment at 3.67 percent, a level that can fuel a commercial nuclear power plant. Weapons-grade uranium enrichment must reach 90 percent.
However, scientists say that, once the capacity to enrich uranium has reached around 20 percent, the time needed to reach 90 percent is halved. Prior to the agreement, Iran enriched uranium to 20 percent.
After the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, Iran last year boosted its enrichment purity to 4.5 percent.
Following Soleimani's assassination by the United States, Tehran announced what it said was its fifth and final step in violating the JCPOA and said it no longer will abide by any limitation to its enrichment activities.