A misconception that could scuttle nuclear talks with Iran

November 24, 2014

EU envoy Ashton, Britain's Foreign Secretary Hammond and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif sit at a table during talks in Vienna

As nuclear talks between Iran and the other members of the so-called P5+1 group are extended for another seven months, one issue is sure to remain a sticking point. The most important differences between all sides relates to the size of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program.

The crucial point is breakout time: How long it would take to produce enough bomb material — in this case, highly enriched uranium — for one nuclear weapon.

Yet, defining breakout in terms of one bomb makes little practical sense. If Iran used that material to test its first device, Tehran would have nothing left for an actual bomb. If we used a threshold of two bomb’s worth of material — a smaller arsenal than any in history –it would double the breakout time.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna

Central here is the worry that Iran would sign a deal, then reverse course, kick out the inspectors and rush toward building a bomb. Breakout time is, in theory, supposed to measure how much time the United States and other nations would have to respond to such a move.

Opponents to a nuclear deal with Iran have used breakout as a way to insist that any agreement require such a small number of centrifuges that Iran would likely refuse. Iranian hardliners, meanwhile, press for so many centrifuges that no American negotiator could accept them.

Breakout is a legitimate concern, one that U.S. negotiators have dealt with many times in nonproliferation and arms-control agreements. But it is only one component — and in this case, the discussion has been deeply flawed.

Breakout, for example, is exceedingly rare. Only one country in the nearly 70-year history of the nuclear age has broken out to build one bomb — North Korea.

North Korea may be in a unique situation, however. Pyongyang benefited from the fact that its neighbor and ally, China, is a nuclear-armed great power. There is no China equivalent for Iran.

IAEA Director General Amano talks to the media as he arrives at Vienna's airport

There is also far more to building a bomb that producing the bomb material. A country has to weaponize it and marry it to a delivery platform. That takes additional time — time not included in breakout calculations discussed in Washington. U.S. and Israeli officials have said that from the moment Iran decides to build a nuclear bomb, it would take them an extra year to do so.

Every nonproliferation and arms-control agreement ever signed has carried some risk of breakout. We do not live in a perfect world. But that does not prevent policymakers from arriving at effective agreements. The United States has had nuclear agreements with Libya, the Soviet Union and other bad actors.  In every case, those agreements advanced U.S. national security.

Had American leaders refused to act out of a fear of breakout, as some argued at the time, we would be living in a far more dangerous world.

In addition, it would make no sense for the Iranians to subject themselves to enhanced monitoring and then break out. The director of National Intelligence, the top intelligence official in the United States, has repeatedly testified that Iran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons.

Now is the time to lock Iran into an intrusive verification system — before it changes course.

If the nuclear talks collapse because fear of breakout overwhelms all other considerations, the consequences would be enormous. Iran would likely resume enriching uranium to near weapons-grade. It would fire up its 1,000 never-before-operated advanced centrifuges. Transparency would decline as the scope and number of inspections were reduced, and, ironically, Iran’s breakout time would shorten. This, in turn, would lead to demands for military strikes and the possibility of yet another war in a region already convulsing with violence.

It does not have to be that way. Are we really going to forgo the most important opportunity in 30 years to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and advance both U.S. and Israeli security because we are hostage to a flawed definition?

If we do, the price paid would be very high.


PHOTO (TOP): European Union envoy Catherine Ashton (L), British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sit at a table during talks in Vienna, November 21, 2014. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

PHOTO (INSERT 2): International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano talks to the media as he arrives at Vienna’s airport, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

One comment

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Agree that too much attention focused on breakout time for the reasons cited. This approach also creates the unfortunate impression that Iran intransigence on size of enrichment program is due to its desire to keep the breakout time as short as possible, when almost nobody believes that route would be used if Iran did go for a nuke some day. A covert route or “sneak out” is more likely, with the “legal” route of 90 days notification of withdrawal the most likely. If Iran addresses IAEA concerns in the wake of a deal with the P5+1, it will ultimately be back in compliance with the NPT. At that point, why would Iran invite a military attack by cheating its way to a bomb when it could do so “legally”?

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