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Expert: Clock is ticking on Iran's nuclear breakout, may spark 'major conflict'

With tensions increasing between Iran and the United States after last week’s killing of a high-level Iranian general, all eyes are now focused on Tehran’s nuclear capabilities — which one expert told Yahoo Finance could reach its breakout stage within months.

The world has been roiled by last week’s U.S. airstrike that took out General Qassem Soleimani, a prominent figure in Iran’s military. Over the weekend, Iran decided to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal negotiated by the Obama administration — but repeatedly blasted by President Donald Trump — that limited Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear material.

As Trump vowed that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” a few analysts are warning the president shouldn’t underestimate Iran’s resolve.

“Iran is a nuclear threat, and it has had this latent nuclear capability for some time. It was briefly parked under the Iran nuclear deal. The United States withdrew from that deal last year,” Matthew Kroeing, the Atlantic Council’s deputy director for strategy, told Yahoo Finance’s “The Ticker.”

Iran’s move to break the JCPOA — something critics of the agreement have suggested Tehran wasn’t abiding anyway — “will increase its nuclear capabilities,” Kroenig said.

“And so this does make the nuclear crisis more acute. Best estimates are that within six to eight months or so, Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability. So I think the timeline on Iran's march to the bomb started with the announcement [on Sunday],” he added.

The sparring over Iran’s nuclear commitments dates back years, but came to a head in 2012, when the Obama administration pressured Iran with sanctions after the countries government refused to “live up to its international obligations regarding its nuclear program.”

Kroenig pointed out that “at the time, negotiations weren't really going anywhere. Many people feared we were going to face this difficult decision between either living with a nuclear-armed Iran or taking military action to stop it.”

The JCPOA brought some time, “but I think we're now kind of returning to that 2010 period, where we're going to have to ask ourselves, can we get Iran to the table to negotiate?” Kroenig asked.

“If not, are we willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran? And if not, then are we willing to take military action? So I think we've got some weeks or months for this crisis to play out, but I think this will be a more serious crisis than this recent crisis over the killing of Soleimani,” he added.

With the president threatening Iran with harsh consequences, Kroenig suggested the ball’s largely in Iran’s court.

“Maybe this is just an announcement. Maybe it won't actually do much to ramp up its nuclear program, in which case this could be kind of a slow boiling crisis,” he said.

“But if Iran took steps to really ramp up its nuclear program,” Kroeing continued, “if it were to kick out international inspectors for example, then I think you would hear serious calls for military action to stop Iran's program. It could lead to a major conflict between the United States and Iran.”

Chelsea Lombardo is a production assistant for Yahoo Finance. You can find more of her work here.

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