The Problem With Stopwatches and Centrifuges

Why it's Iran's hidden facilities, not the breakout time to making a bomb, we should be worrying about.

Photo by VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images

Oh, my God, they’re going to screw this up.

I will be the first to tell you that most of the criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy reflects the prerogatives of the chattering class. If things were going swimmingly, there’d be nothing to chatter about.

In fact, this administration usually has it about right on substance, even if it gets low marks for articulating its vision and too often flubs the execution of sensible policies. But no administration is perfect — not even former President George H.W. Bush’s vaunted team. Obama has wound down two disastrous wars, without starting any new ones — and now he needs a big win. One or two big foreign-policy achievements is all that separates a modern-day Richelieu from a bumbling amoral criminal. Ask Henry Kissinger.

If the Obama administration can achieve a diplomatic agreement to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, historians will probably judge the U.S. president much more kindly than contemporary pundits and partisans. That’s why I spit out my coffee when on Wednesday I read that the chances for an Iran deal are slipping away over the issue of how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep.

"[The Iranians] expect to get capacity to fuel Bushehr, and that’s unrealistic," one diplomat told Reuters. "It gets you a very short breakout time."

"Breakout" is the theoretical time it would take Iran to reconfigure its cascades of centrifuges at its declared enrichment sites and then make enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. The theory goes that a "short" breakout time — on the order of weeks — makes it somehow more likely that Iran will build a nuclear weapon.

This is completely wrong. Breakout is precisely the wrong measure of whether a deal is successful. If Obama lets this deal slip away over a breakout calculation, he’ll earn the dismal reputation that pundits have been trying to hang on him.

The Iranians are extraordinarily unlikely to break out using a facility that is under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, even if they are able to do so very quickly. I don’t know how this calculation became the dominant measure of any agreement with Iran — but it depends on a number of dubious assumptions.

The most dubious assumption is that anyone in Iran cares about the breakout timeline. Breakout is a wonk’s calculation — there is simply no evidence that political figures in Iran, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, think about the problem in terms of math and are, therefore, deterred by breakout taking a month in way they might not if it took a week.

And if Iran gains enough fissile material for one weapon in a week’s time, so what? The United States nearly attacked North Korea when it had enough plutonium for, in the words of the U.S. intelligence community, "one, possibly two" nuclear weapons. Having a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium sitting around isn’t a deterrent — it is an invitation to preemption. If Khamenei chooses to break out, this will ignite an enormous crisis with the United States, Israel, and others. The supreme leader might opt for a crisis, but this is the kind of decision that usually depends on larger issues such as domestic political considerations, how the Iranian leadership judges U.S. resolve, and the stakes at the moment. Back-of-the-envelope breakout calculations don’t matter.

What Khamenei is more likely to do, if he decides that nuclear weapons are no longer un-Islamic, is to order the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to build a covert facility with technology from the civil program. You know, like Iran did at Natanz before 2002, and near Qom before 2010. A covert facility would provide Iran with a significant and steady supply of highly enriched uranium. With a little luck for the Iranians, this approach would present the United States and its partners with a fait accompli — one where we don’t know how much highly enriched uranium they have or where it’s made. That’s what the North Koreans are doing now, having wised up about the limited value of a plutonium production infrastructure housed in very large reactors and a reprocessing building that are easily identified and targeted.

Let me put this simply: Even if the Iranians build a bomb, they are likely to pretend for a prolonged time that they haven’t. Imposing limits on the number, capability, or operation of Iran’s centrifuges is a fool’s errand. It is far more important to win concessions on verification and access to Iran’s nuclear program.

Try this thought experiment. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in talks with the international powers, agrees to scrap the entire nuclear program down to the last centrifuge. That’s wonderful, Lady Catherine Ashton says — now we just have to talk about sanctions relief and verification. Verification, Zarif chuckles — oh, there’s no need for verification! There is nothing for you to verify!

That’s a terrible deal, right? Any deal, no matter how many centrifuges it permits, depends fundamentally on the quality of the verification measures. Every ounce of leverage the United States and its partners spend on limiting the known centrifuge program is leverage they have wasted by not using it to win the best possible verification measures.

I don’t mean to say that breakout doesn’t matter at all. It is surely one factor — though it was more persuasive when we thought Iran lacked the ability to manufacture many centrifuge components. But to let breakout calculations be the primary, let alone sole, measure of the deal’s value is wrong.

Officials and analysts often don’t describe the function of any agreement with Tehran, beyond the high-level goal to "prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon." The purpose of an agreement is to trade sanctions relief for a verifiable gap between Iran’s technical option to build a bomb and any political decision to exercise that option. Sanctions relief provides the incentive to remain in compliance with the agreement, backed by verification and monitoring measures that convince the supreme leader that any cheating would be detected.

First and foremost, that means maximizing our ability to detect covert facilities, not limiting the breakout time. Khamenei might still choose to build a bomb under such circumstances — but at the cost of a major crisis that will guarantee heavy sanctions and risk military action. That’s no guarantee of sensible decisions in Tehran, of course, but neither can sanctions or bombing runs guarantee that cooler heads will prevail. Life is frustrating like that. But an offer of sanctions relief backed by the threat of pain and yet more pain to come is the best we can do — and it all hinges on verification.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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