An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iran Already Has Nuclear Weapons Capability

Bibi wants Congress to ask itself whether any agreement with Iran is a "good deal" or a "bad deal." But that's the wrong question.

Political Leaders Address Annual AIPAC Policy Conference
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 02: In this handout provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Tomorrow March 3rd Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of the US Congress. (Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington this week to try to sell members of Congress a false dichotomy. In nuclear negotiations with Iran, he will argue that the United States faces a choice between a “good deal” and a “bad deal.” He will urge Congress to stop President Barack Obama from accepting the latter which, he will say, “endangers the existence of the state of Israel.”

Buyer beware. Every serious analyst of this issue — including the prime minister — knows that this is a false dichotomy. In negotiations, a bad deal is by definition unacceptable. The same is true for one’s opponent: in an either-or world, a good deal for one would have to be a bad deal for the other. Thus, negotiated agreements require compromises, in which neither party achieves all of its demands.

In his speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu will caricature any compromise as capitulation. To the untutored, his arguments may sound persuasive. No nation, he will say, would tolerate its archenemy acquiring nuclear weapons. Therefore, Israel has to demand that any agreement eliminate every aspect of Iran’s capability to ever produce nuclear weapons. Anything short of this, according to Netanyahu’s construction, is a “bad deal.”

Yet, this argument ignores what has happened on the ground over the past decade as successive U.S. and Israeli administrations have held to this view. By insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.

When Netanyahu first became prime minister in the late 1990s, he was among the first world leaders to sound the alarm about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And he made clear Israel’s bottom line demanding four “no’s”: no enrichment, no centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and no heavy water reactor at Arak.

What he has never been able to figure out is how to achieve these worthy aspirations. Instead, the “strategy” followed by Netanyahu, his successors, and American counterparts has been to reassert these demands, declare “red lines” that Iran would never be allowed to cross, and watch as it moved across each one. American and Israeli leaders have then retreated to the next “no” and pressed the repeat button.

The consequences of this failed strategy are two ugly but irreversible facts. First, Iran has advanced to the point that we now have to consider something called “breakout time,” the number of months it would take to produce a bomb’s-worth of enriched uranium. The second, even uglier, truth is that Iran has developed the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and this capability cannot be erased.

The critical tipping point on this path occurred in 2008 when Iran mastered the technical know-how to build centrifuges and operate them to enrich uranium to levels required for the core of a nuclear bomb. As I wrote at that time, “Iran has crossed a threshold that is painful to acknowledge but impossible to ignore: it has lost its nuclear virginity.”

When Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009 and was briefed on these developments, he was reportedly shocked to the point of disbelief. Indeed, after the prime minister and his national security adviser, Uzi Arad, had cross-examined Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear progress, Arad virtually indicted Israel’s leaders of the past decade for dereliction of duty. As he said in a controversial Ha’aretz interview: “The point of no-return was defined as the point at which Iran has the ability to complete the cycle of nuclear fuel production on its own; the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material without depending on outsiders. Iran is now there.”

There is no way to erase from the minds of thousands of Iranian scientists and engineers the knowledge and skills to produce weapons-grade uranium. There is no way to eliminate Iran’s indigenous capacity to mine uranium, manufacture centrifuges, or operate them. Thus, there is no conceivable end to this story in which Iran will not retain the capability to build nuclear weapons.

This is a truth that many in Congress simply refuse to accept, since like the prime minister they have repeatedly declared this would never be allowed to happen. Even the most recent iteration of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation asserts that Iran must be “precluded from a nuclear breakout capability.” Wonderful as it would be to return to a past when that could be the case, in this world, that is now fantasy. As the U.S. intelligence community has consistently reported, including in February’s release of the 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment: “Iran does not face any insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”

If we accept what we cannot deny, the strategic question becomes how to persuade Iran’s supreme leader that while Iran has an irreversible technical capability, it does not have — and will not be allowed to acquire — an exercisable nuclear weapons option. To do that, we must convince Tehran that there is simply no way it can dash to a nuclear bomb without being detected and without triggering an attack that stops it short of its goal.

Translating this objective into specific terms in an acceptable deal requires finding the appropriate combination of constraints on Iranian activity, on one hand, with our intelligence and military capabilities, on the other, that together give us the highest probability of discovery and interdiction. In the current negotiations, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have demanded at least 12 months of “breakout time.” That would mean that if Iran decided to dash for a bomb, we would have at least a year to discover, confirm, and act.

Yet, in Netanyahu’s address, count on him to argue that even a one-year “breakout time” will be a “bad deal.”

In assessing that assertion and his recommendation about what we should do at this point, viewers of the prime minister’s speech should consider the quality of his earlier advice. Fifteen months ago, as the United States was concluding the Interim Agreement (officially called the Joint Plan of Action) to freeze Iran’s nuclear advance and roll back its most dangerous element — the production of medium enriched uranium — Netanyahu urged Washington and other friends of Israel to say “no.” He declared the agreement not just a bad deal but a “historic mistake,” predicting that the sanctions regime would “collapse,” Iran’s nuclear advance would continue, and the international coalition’s determination to stop Iran short of a bomb would be undermined.

Examining what has happened since the interim deal was signed, the verdict — which has been confirmed by Israeli intelligence — is clear. None of the prime minister’s predictions proved correct. In fact, the freeze imposed by the Interim Agreement stopped Iran’s advance in its tracks. As Ehud Barak (Netanyahu’s closest ally when Barak served as his defense minister) has noted, as a result of the Interim Agreement, Iran was set “back [from producing a bomb] by half a year.”

Since negotiations about a comprehensive agreement are ongoing, at this point no one knows whether the Iranians will accept a verifiable agreement that meets our essential objectives, including extending their “breakout time” from the current 2-3 months to at least one year and accepting intrusive verification and inspections, which are crucial to our ability to discover any attempt to cheat.

If Netanyahu wants to argue that even if the United States succeeds in getting them to do so, Congress should reject that as a “bad deal,” the onus is on him to offer a specific, feasible alternative that will make us all safer.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison