Reuters Blog: Jim Walsh on Iran’s Nuclear Breakout

A misconception that could scuttle nuclear talks with Iran

By Dr. Jim Walsh, Council Board Member

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.

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.