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Missing the point on Iran’s nuclear breakout time
Missing the point on Iran’s nuclear breakout time

Missing the point on Iran’s nuclear breakout time

Originally published in Al Jazeera America

One reason for the urgency behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress on Tuesday is the fact that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers is reportedly taking shape in Switzerland. The parameters of the agreement under discussion — and, indeed, of any deal that can plausibly be reached right now —will leave Iran with infrastructure that could potentially be repurposed toward weaponization. So, the key metric by which the U.S. Congress will judge any agreement will be breakout time, the minimum period required for Iran, using that infrastructure, to produce 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. That would be enough for a single bomb, should Tehran decide to build one.

The timescale for Iran to produce a bomb’s worth of fissile material is an appealingly simple criterion in light of the technical complexity of the negotiations. But it’s also a deceptively simple one. Five common misperceptions make breakout time a misleading gauge of the potential threat:

Misperception No. 1: Breakout time measures the time needed to build a nuclear weapon

Not really. Breakout time measures the time needed to produce fissile material for a bomb, not the bomb itself. After enriching enough weapons-grade uranium hexafluoride gas, Iran would have to turn the gas into powder form, convert the powder into a metallic core, assemble explosives around the core and finally integrate a miniaturized weapons package into the nose cone of a missile. Those steps would require a further 6 to 18 months after creating the fissile material, depending on how far Iran progressed in its alleged weaponization research that U.S. intelligence concluded had been shelved in 2003. Even if Iran got everything right on a first attempt, it would still need to test its bomb — as every nuclear-armed country has done — which would require more than one device and lengthen the time frame. (See Misperception No. 2.)

Misperception No. 2: Breakout time is measurable

Far from it; breakout time is estimated rather than calculated. Different experts using the same numbers come up with different time frames, even among the countries negotiating with Iran. They differ on assessments of average centrifuge efficiency and the time required to chemically covert uranium into feedstock, reconfigure centrifuge cascades and recycle waste. Breakout estimates, moreover, usually assume that an Iranian dash for the bomb would face none of the technical challenges that have plagued the program over the past decade.

More importantly, the breakout capacity measure ignores the reality that a single bomb does not make a nuclear deterrent. Assuming that Tehran would at minimum need two bombs’ worth of material in order to test one, the breakout time estimate doubles; assuming that Iran, like other nuclear-armed countries, would want a small arsenal, the time frame increases several times over.

Finally, while the number of centrifuges attracts disproportionate congressional attention, it is only one factor in the complex equation that determines breakout time. Other elements include the type and efficiency of centrifuges, the configuration of interconnected machines, the level of enrichment and the amount of stockpiled enriched material. And some of these elements are inversely correlated.

Misperception No. 3:  Breaking out is Iran’s most likely path to weaponization

That’s a misguided assumption. The U.S. intelligence community has long concluded that Iran will not, in fact, use the intrusively monitored nuclear facilities under discussion in the current talks to pursue a nuclear weapon. Washington believes that should Iran decide to build nuclear weapons, it would be more likely to try to “sneak out” in a clandestine facility. Over the past three decades, this has been the route chosen by virtually every country dreaming of nuclear weapons, including North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Romania, with varying degrees of success. Both Iranian enrichment facilities, in Natanz and Fordow, were built covertly and declared only after being exposed by Western intelligence agencies. Fixation on a possible breakout distracts from the greater risk of a sneak-out and therefore from the two main safeguards for preventing one: transparency and monitoring.

Misperception No. 4:  A shorter breakout time reduces Washington’s ability to prevent an Iranian sprint to nuclear weapons

Incorrect. Under all conceivable agreements — and even under the status quo inspection regime — the discovery of any trace of uranium enriched beyond civilian-grade would trigger an alarm. Skeptics counter that such evidence would likely be ambiguous and require time-consuming analysis, which combined with the West’s aversion to confrontation may prevent the mobilization of forceful action in time. But the scale of enrichment activity required to produce bomb material would require a brazen breakout, significantly increasing the prospects for speedy detection under a watchful monitoring regime. Such evidence would prompt and in the eyes of world powers legitimize a firm response, for which the U.S. and Israel probably already have extensive contingency plans. Given the extensive long-term U.S. deployments in the Persian Gulf, air strikes could be launched — with or without international blessing — in a matter of days. And that capacity to strike means there’s little practical difference between six, 12 or 24 months of breakout time.

Misperception No. 5: If the breakout time is short enough, Iran will dash to build a bomb

This idea is not supported by the factual track record. Iran’s nominal breakout time over the past four years has, in fact, been less than six months but that did not prompt weaponization. Now it’s negotiating a deal that would extend the breakout time, by the same measures, to one year and subjects it to enhanced monitoring. Since 2007, the U.S. intelligence community has consistently assessed Iran to have the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so, but that no such political decision had been taken. In addition, U.S. National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iranian leaders’ decisions on whether to build nuclear weapons will be based on their perception of their threat environment and on a cost-benefit analysis. If leaders in Tehran believe that their survival requires the ultimate deterrent, they would likely be willing to endure even more punishing sanctions to acquire the bomb.

Beyond technical parameters of a nuclear deal, the question facing Western powers is how to shape Tehran’s perception of its threat environment. By that logic, pursuing a more expansive engagement with Iran on economic, political and security questions may become even more important than lengthening breakout time.

Trip to Bushehr Province - President visits Bushehr Atomic Plant, 13 January 2015. president.ir

Iran Briefing Note #7

Iran Briefing Notes highlight and provide context for the previous week’s major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks developments on key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.

Events of Note:

28 July: JCPOA’s Joint Commission meets for an emergency session in Vienna.

29 July: UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says “no quid pro quo” with Iran over detained tankers. 

30 July: Iran and UAE hold maritime security discussions.

31 July: U.S. and Europeans meet to discuss maritime security in Bahrain.

31 July: U.S. extends sanctions waivers on nuclear cooperation projects by 90 days.

31 July: U.S. sanctions Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

1 August: Syrian state media reports Israeli airstrikes in Quneitra province.

1 August: Bernd Erbel, former German ambassador to Iran, assumes presidency of INSTEX.

Staying the Guns of August

President Trump on 29 July tweeted that “the Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation”. 

Why it matters: Today’s confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is reminiscent of tensions on the eve of World War I. The standoff is akin to what happens when an irresistible force – the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign – meets the immovable object of Iran’s resolve to resist rather than yield. The 31 July decision to blacklist Iran’s top diplomat and label him “an illegitimate spokesman” underscores a fundamental tension in U.S. policy: expressing an interest in talks while undermining prospects for their initiation, let alone success. As tensions escalate, the impact of a potential collision would extend far beyond its two main protagonists. In a new Crisis Group report based on dozens of interviews with U.S. and Iranian officials as well as a broad range of regional policymakers from Yemen to Iraq to Israel, we examine the escalatory risks of a confrontation in key flashpoints and propose a tactical détente whereby Tehran and Washington each take a step back from the brink and let third-party mediators plot a de-escalatory path.  

Nuclear Waivers Live to Fight Another Day

The U.S. on 31 July announced that it was extending waivers on international nuclear cooperation projects in Iran.

Why it matters: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provides for international cooperation on Iranian civil nuclear projects. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the U.S. allowed these initiatives to continue by issuing specific waivers. These include converting the heavy-water reactor at Arak into a proliferation-resistant one, turning the Fordow facility into a research and medical centre, as well as Russian cooperation on running the Bushehr power plant. In May, however, the U.S. began to tighten the screws by ending waivers on storing of heavy water and sending enriched uranium abroad. Some in Washington, including a group of lawmakers, had been advocating that the waivers be terminated altogether, further undermining the nuclear deal and putting its remaining parties in a position of violating their JCPOA commitments or else risking U.S. penalties. Iran had suggested that revoking the waivers would give it reason to further roll back its obligations under the deal, while putting the blame on the U.S.’s doorstep. The waivers’ extension for another 90 days provides a reprieve, but the clock has already started ticking, which may reduce the incentive for the other parties to the deal to engage in long-term nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Narrowing the Gulf

A UAE delegation was in Tehran on 30 July for discussions on maritime issues.

Why it matters: Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, the UAE is usually seen as one of the main regional supporters of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. But growing risks of a U.S.-Iran clash are keenly felt in the Gulf, particularly among smaller states on the front lines of a potential confrontation: an escalation could endanger their infrastructure, economy, tourism and energy exports. While Tuesday’s meeting was ostensibly technical and following up on existing bilateral consultations, the timing and acknowledgement of a “satisfactory” session could signal Abu Dhabi’s interest in a cooling down of tensions. It’s also worth recalling that the UAE was careful not to publicly blame Iran for attacks on tankers in the port of Fujaira in May, and in June drew down its forces from fighting the Huthis in Yemen (though it remains heavily committed in the south of the country). “We are very alarmed at the sporadic nature of the escalation [between the U.S. and Iran]”, a senior UAE official told Crisis Group. “We’re at the brink of something”. The logic may be that keeping channels of communications open translates that alarm into a de-escalatory message intended for both Washington and Tehran.

What to Watch

24-26 August: G7 meeting in Biarritz, France.

6 September: Iran’s next deadline for reducing its JCPOA commitments.

17-30 September: UN General Assembly; general debate begins on 24th.

Click here to see the U.S.-Iran Trigger List, and here for a two-page, printable PDF of the Briefing Note.