war on the rocks

Iran Negotiations Cannot Be Based on “Breakout” Alone

July 24, 2014

Negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran have agreed on four more months, beyond the original July 20 deadline, to ensure that they are able to negotiate the best deal on Iran’s nuclear program. But some of the toughest issues remain unresolved. Key among them is the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain. Recently, Iran indicated that it might be able to come down from its original demand of 100,000; but even at 50,000, a large gap would remain between that and the few thousand centrifuges the P5+1 would like to see. Ultimately, the two sides will have to come to a compromise on many technical issues; if and when they do, we should remember that the comprehensive deal should be considered in its entirety, rather than as disparate pieces. The number of centrifuges Iran is left with will not, in itself, determine the international community’s ability counter an Iranian nuclear weapon. Rather, one must take into account a variety of factors including Iran’s nuclear capability, monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, and the ability of the U.S. military to react to any move toward a bomb.

In recent weeks and months, one phrase has begun to dominate the conversation among lawmakers and analysts in Washington: breakout capacity. This refers to the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon, and the quantification has in many cases been used to define the success of a nuclear deal. On the surface this makes sense. The longer it would hypothetically take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon, the better, right? But while a deal will ultimately include a variety of constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, it is rare to hear a baseline measure of success set anywhere other than “breakout.”

Why have we chosen breakout as the one defining metric of a good deal? The purpose of each constraint, taken as a whole, is to limit Iran’s nuclear program to the point that the international community could detect any attempt to build a nuclear weapon, and even more importantly, react. A good nuclear deal will include a combination of elements that address Iran’s past, present, and future nuclear activities, including monitoring and transparency, possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, and former U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Many in Washington pessimistically assume that the United States will still ultimately be faced with a decision of how and when to react to an Iranian attempt to build a nuclear weapon. This is the basis of some critics’ focus on “breakout.”

The United States must, without a doubt, be left with enough time to react to such a move at the end of a deal. The breakout criterion, however, fails to take into account two factors. First, under the current Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear activity is more thorough than ever. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), tasked with keeping watch over Iran’s nuclear activities, is able to conduct snap inspections and monitor Iran’s facilities using video surveillance. This monitoring regime will become more intrusive and institutionalized under a good final deal.

Because of these inspections, we know that Iran has ceased enrichment above 5%, converted or diluted its entire stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, stopped the installation of additional centrifuges at its facilities, refrained from further advances on the Arak reactor, and allowed more frequent and comprehensive inspections at more of its nuclear sites since the implementation of the JPOA in January.

These measures, taken in exchange for relatively little relief from the United States and its partners, should be considered as a sign of good faith. But they do not mean that the United States and Iran have overcome their long history of mistrust. Indeed, those who doubt the efficacy of any Iranian nuclear deal will not be satisfied with a show of good faith alone. One of few certainties in this negotiation is the undisputed fact that no matter what happened on July 20, or in the weeks and months that follow, mistrust will remain. And it should. For this reason, the United States must ensure that it will have the time to react in the event Iran chooses to shirk its responsibilities under a final deal.

This brings us to our second factor. How much time does the United States need to react? Would it really take as long as a year?

With thorough and unimpeded monitoring by IAEA, to include the ability under the “Additional Protocol” to inspect any suspicious location for nuclear activity, we would know almost instantaneously if and when Iran makes a decision to produce weapons-grade fissile material, convert it to metallic form, and construct an explosive device, a process that would require considerable time. But we would not have to wait until then to consider a response.

With advance contingency planning, a normal practice by the U.S. Department of Defense, in coordination with our allies and in consultation with other interested parties, a realistic reaction time to Iranian steps toward a nuclear bomb is weeks, not months. While some modification of any plan is likely to be necessary as the situation unfolds, it would require far less time than starting from scratch.

This is not to say that the United States should allow Iran a window of only a few weeks, but to point out that to insist on a timeline that is as long as a year might not be necessary, especially if it might scuttle the potential for a deal. This fact, combined with other important factors such as verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, should be considered as a whole.

Iran’s nuclear capacity must be restrained — that’s the point of the negotiations — but agreement on a final deal shouldn’t be hampered by maximalist demands on either side. While Iran should not expect to leave the table without compromising on the size of its nuclear program, the P5+1 should also not focus so myopically on one element of Iran’s nuclear program to the extent that it might cloud the possibility of obtaining a solid deal.

The measure of whether a final comprehensive deal is a good one is clear: Does it advance U.S. security? A deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program and establishes an intrusive inspections regime would certainly protect United States security. And that is the only metric that matters.


Laicie Heeley is Director of Middle East and Defense Policy at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where her work focuses primarily on weapons proliferation, defense analysis, and Iran.

Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard is senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation and former president of the National Defense University.