Politics & Policy

Iran’s Breakout Capacity

Obama’s rosy scenarios don’t match the real world.

With the deadline for a deal in the Iran nuclear negotiations imminent, President Obama’s negotiators say they have set a permanent red line for their final terms. An agreement must last at least ten years and keep Iran a year away from the ability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb — the so-called breakout time.

The success of any accord, however, hinges on what “breakout” means and whether a year is enough time to detect and stop an Iranian drive to the bomb. A closer look at both questions suggests that a year is not nearly as long as it might sound.

Iran’s breakout time depends on a number of factors. The first is the size and type of Iran’s existing uranium stockpile. A nuclear bomb requires roughly 20 kilograms of 90 percent highly enriched uranium (HEU). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, Iran currently has roughly 8,000 kg of 5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU). From that stockpile, it could likely produce the 20 kg of HEU needed for one bomb in as little as 45 days. (Before the implementation of the interim Joint Plan of Action agreed to in Geneva last November by Iran and the P5+1 countries, the range was estimated at 31 to 59 days). For each bomb, Iran would need roughly 1,000 to 1,500 kg of LEU. That means that with its current stockpile, Iran could build somewhere between four and seven bombs.

The second factor is the number of operating centrifuges Iran has and the speed at which they process uranium. Centrifuges spin uranium gas to extract U-235 uranium, the variety necessary for a bomb. Their efficiency is measured by Separate Work Units (SWUs). Experts suggest that Iran would require between 4,500 and 6,000 SWU per year to produce enough HEU for one bomb. Rudimentary centrifuges have lower SWUs, while more advanced centrifuges have higher SWUs. Iranian centrifuges vary in quality. Under the interim accord, Iran operates roughly 9,000 first-generation centrifuges, known as IR-1s. Iran agreed to take an additional 8,000 IR-1s and 1,000 second-generation centrifuges (IR-2ms) offline. Using only its currently operational IR-1s, Iran could likely produce enough HEU for one bomb within four to six months from scratch. If it reinstalled the rest of its centrifuges and introduced more efficient models, that timeline could shrink dramatically.

The Obama administration has sought to devise a package of centrifuge count and quality, as well as stockpile size, that would extend Iran’s breakout time to a year. Media reports suggest that it will allow Iran to keep roughly 6,000 centrifuges as long as it operates only first-generation models, reduces the output of those models, and agrees to ship most of its existing uranium stockpile out of the country. (At the last minute, Iran is now backtracking on its promise to send that stockpile abroad.) As the White House settled on the one-year breakout time as its bottom-line benchmark, its position on the number of centrifuges it would permit Iran to keep shifted dramatically. As late as June of last year, P5+1 negotiators were demanding a limit of a few hundred centrifuges. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at the time, “but the Iranians want thousands. We’re not in the same framework.” The negotiators then raised that number to 1,500. By the end of October, they had conceded to 4,500. And in the latest round of talks, they agreed to permit Iran to keep 6,000 centrifuges or more on line.

On their own, 6,000 centrifuges can easily sustain a nuclear-weapons program. As former CIA deputy director Michael Morell noted in late February, “if you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 [centrifuges] is pretty much the number you’d need.” That’s why the success of the deal depends on enforceability. The United States and its partners must ensure that Iran ships the necessary amount of fuel out of the country, reduces its centrifuge capacity, and doesn’t attempt a covert breakout through undeclared facilities. The question is whether a year is enough time to detect and punish an Iranian violation.

A fundamental premise of the negotiations is that Iran must accept an extensive inspection regime. Without rigorous monitoring, the P5+1 nations could not hope to maintain the delicate balance of centrifuges and stockpile now on offer. Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official and an architect of the current diplomatic strategy, has written that a deal must require “intrusive verification provisions that go beyond the measures contained in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, including frequent access to centrifuge production facilities, detailed reporting of nuclear-related procurement and robust inspection procedures.” As part of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran promised to implement the additional protocol, which mandates an extensive inspections regime, should the parties sign a final deal. But Iran first made that promise over a decade ago without consistently keeping it. And it has consistently indicated that it will not accept unfettered inspections. Absent an “invasive” inspection regime “with the freedom to visit all sites on short notice,” former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told Congress last November, “American intelligence cannot provide adequate warning of Iranian nuclear developments.”

Most crucially, the Islamic Republic continues to block IAEA inquiries into its past weaponization efforts. A confidential IAEA report in late February declared that Iran “has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify” outstanding questions, such as past explosive tests used for testing nuclear devices. The P5+1 once demanded full disclosure of past military activities before the signing of a final deal. But as the negotiations approach their climax, they appear to have dropped that request. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and one of the world’s leading experts on Iran’s nuclear program, has argued that a successful deal requires Iranian transparency on weaponization. “To design a verification regime,” Albright has written, “the IAEA needs a good baseline of Iran’s military nuclear activities,” which it cannot establish without inspecting military sites and interviewing key Iranian officials. Iran has consistently forbidden it to do either. According to Albright, “the situation today . . . does not allow for the creation of an adequate verification regime.” Disclosure of past weaponization activity, in other words, is a fundamental prerequisite to successful inspections.

But even if Iran accepts the inspections regime desired by the P5+1, intrusive investigation doesn’t guarantee cooperation or successful detection of violations. Some have argued that the IAEA could quickly discover an Iranian violation at one of its declared facilities — probably within two weeks. The danger, of course, is covert activity. Iran could attempt a “sneakout” from a secret nuclear facility currently unknown to Western intelligence agencies, or it could combine a sneakout from known and unknown sites.

If there is hardly any Western reaction when Iran brazenly ignores the IAEA in the midst of sensitive negotiations, Tehran would have little reason to comply later, when the pressure is off. The regime understands that it can manage inspectors’ access without spurring the P5+1 to declare a violation. Given its steadfast refusal to permit IAEA inspectors to visit its military facilities, for example, it could simply declare a covert nuclear site an army zone and render it inaccessible. Iran may offer the appearance of full cooperation and yet still deceive inspectors. Dating back to the first Soviet nuclear explosion, U.S. intelligence has repeatedly missed or underestimated covert atomic programs. With Iran in particular, it failed to detect significant nuclear facilities under construction for a decade until they were exposed in 2002. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, has said, “If there is no undeclared installation [in Iran] today . . . it will be the first time in 20 years that Iran doesn’t have one.”

The IAEA may nonetheless uncover illicit behavior in time, either in declared or in undeclared facilities. But the one-year breakout window is too short a time in which to act. Numerous players, from the U.S. intelligence agencies and Department of Energy to the IAEA, would need to examine evidence, collaborate, and agree on findings — a process that alone could take months. First, as Heinonen has said, IAEA inspectors would need to test environmental samples; this itself could take months. They would also have to formally alert the IAEA board of any possible violations. The board would then meet, pass a resolution, and forward its recommendation to the U.N. Security Council. Under a scenario in which Iranian action constituted a clear violation, and the Security Council powers agreed on its severity, the initial judgment process could take over a month. Yet, on the basis of Tehran’s prior behavior, the regime is more likely to cheat around the edges. This would at the very least prolong any debate about a potential violation, if not bog it down indefinitely — particularly given Chinese and Russian antipathy toward further pressure on Iran.

Even if the Security Council agreed that something constituted a violation, it would then need to agree on the consequences. The Obama administration believes that it can muster an effective response within a year. This, Einhorn has written, “is more than enough time to exhaust diplomatic efforts and economic pressure before turning, if necessary, to military force.” But the notion that sanctions could deter a successful breakout seems naïve at best. The P5+1 and their international partners will likely disagree about the seriousness of an Iranian breach. While the United States might seek more punishing sanctions, for example, Russia might argue that an infraction merits a less substantial response. Resolving such disputes could take months. Should the powers somehow agree, then, under the deal that is struck, the P5+1 will dismantle significant portions of the sanctions architecture currently in place. The resultant improvement in Tehran’s finances, as well as international reluctance to return to a world in which nations have restricted access to the Iranian economy, would weaken any “snapback” sanctions. Judging their efficacy would itself take months — by which time there is no guarantee that the United States would consider using force, let alone that it could convince its P5+1 partners of the need to strike. All of these discussions would occur in the framework of an Iranian nuclear program enshrined in international law by a final agreement. And there is no guarantee that sanctions of any severity could dissuade Iran from pursuing a breakout.

The current deal on offer to Iran may not guarantee even a year’s worth of time to detect a breakout. Both French and Israeli sources have indicated that they calculate Iran’s breakout time under the current deal somewhere short of a year. Heinonen agrees, noting that the breakout time from scratch with 6,500 centrifuges would be about nine months — and that with even a small amount of its current stockpile, Iran could reduce that time even further. Reports suggest that U.S. negotiators reached their one-year calculation through tests of mock Iranian centrifuges at national laboratories, but Washington has not publicly released the basis for its estimates.

By consistently scaling back demands, President Obama has placed his faith on a number of contingencies. Each carries a considerable risk of failure. He hopes that Iran will accept a sufficiently intrusive sanctions regime. He hopes that the IAEA could uncover a violation in time. He hopes that the international community could deliberate the nature of the infraction and agree on a unified response swiftly. He hopes that the initial response — economic sanctions likely weaker than those currently in place — could deter a breakout. He hopes that if they don’t, the United States and its partners will countenance a war. And he hopes that all of this can happen within a year despite the overwhelming psychological pressure, both at home and abroad, to preserve the promise of the deal and to stave off its collapse by excusing Iranian behavior and relaxing the terms of the accord.

The history of Iran’s nuclear program suggests that such hopes are not a sound foundation for a deal so vital to regional and global security. The Obama administration has sacrificed time that the United States can likely never recover.

Jordan Chandler Hirsch, a former editor at Foreign Affairs, is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School.

 

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