Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Iran’s Breakout and Sneakout Into the Nuclear Sunset

When it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, keep a close watch on this golden triangle.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress, March 3, 2015:

“My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal.... Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran’s break-out time would be very short -- about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s ... a … better deal [is one] that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure….”

Senior U.S. official press briefing, March 8, 2015:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress, March 3, 2015:

“My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal…. Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran’s break-out time would be very short — about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s … a … better deal [is one] that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure….”

Senior U.S. official press briefing, March 8, 2015:

“We are not talking about a 10-year agreement — but about several phases that will continue indefinitely to know that Iran’s program is peaceful.”

These quotes pinpoint a triangle of issues: “breakout,” or the months needed for inspectors to detect Iran’s race for the bomb; “sneakout,” or Tehran’s secret enrichment capabilities — a word that implies little-to-no breakout time; and a “sunset clause,” years after which Iran would be free to chart its own nuclear course and imports/exports free of restraints.


The main narrative emerging from the breakout debate is a dispute between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, over his allegation that Obama is willing to accept a breakout time of only six months, or not even a year.

The day after the speech, the Wall Street Journal published a piece titled “Iran Talks Closer on One-Year Nuclear ‘Breakout’ Demand.” The article reported that Iran and six major powers are nearing an understanding about a final nuclear deal. “It must be structured around the U.S. demand that Tehran stay at least a year away from amassing enough fuel for a nuclear weapon,” the Journal reported. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy also focused on what he suggests is an overlooked sentence of the speech — its opening. “The key sentence [of the speech] was this: ‘Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran’s breakout time would be very short — about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s,'” Satloff wrote.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric suggested that Israeli intelligence doubts Washington’s assessment. How could the United States be sure its estimate of warning time will remain intact in year five or year 10 of an agreement? To ask the question is to answer it. No intelligence is certain.


The back story I heard consists of hallway chatter at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference on March 2, where Netanyahu spoke before addressing the U.S. Congress the next day.

Some of the attendees were discussing new revelations disclosed by the National Coalition of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian opposition organization, on the Israel National News website and in JewsNews. On Feb. 24, the Washington Times labeled these revelations a “blockbuster,” despite admitting they had not independently confirmed them. In short, these are allegations that Iran conducts research and development underground in military sites. The Wall Street Journal noted that Tehran denies inspectors access to such sites, including Parchin, where nuclear weapons research and development may be occurring.

Prior revelations unearthed by NCRI include the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment and Arak heavy water reactor in August 2002. Netanyahu implicitly recognized the 2002 NCRI allegation in his speech, when he stated: “Iran was also caught — caught twice, not once, twice — operating secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Qom, facilities that inspectors didn’t even know existed.” In 2005, President George W. Bush also credited a “dissident group” — i.e., NCRI — with producing the revelation that exposed Tehran’s violations of its obligation to be transparent because of concealing its enrichment work at Natanz.

On Dec. 7, 2009, a retired Air Force Lt. General and I briefed Gen. James Clapper on the NCRI revelations. We asked him whether he was aware of any information in the community about Natanz, prior to the NCRI revelation. He and his deputy said they were unaware, but Clapper set up a series of meetings for me with his staff to review information about Natanz, and related the revelations from NCRI. During part of that time, Clapper was dual-hatted, serving as both the Director of Defense Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of Defense on intelligence, counterintelligence, and security matters. On Aug. 9, 2010, a year after our briefing, he became Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

The Natanz site was entirely clandestine and its existence became public only when the NCRI exposed it in 2002. The question remains, however, whether the U.S. intelligence community already knew about Natanz before the NCRI made it public. Contrary to my understanding, James Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is convinced that U.S. intelligence already knew about Natanz, despite the NCRI assertion and my evidence. (He raises many issues on 2002 Natanz, which is not the focus of this post; so I will only deal with February 2015, which he also calls into question. I would welcome a debate on Natanz in a later set of posts.)

On the February 2015 case, the NCRI asserts that Tehran engaged in research and testing of advanced centrifuge machines for the purpose of uranium enrichment. The group states that its main unit, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), has collected intelligence for over a decade, coinciding with the regime’s covert work on this equipment.

One key piece of evidence is a door in an underground facility. The NCRI suspects it contains enrichment equipment, and provides an exact location. Lewis states: “the picture of the door released by NCRI was actually lifted from an Iranian commercial website.” But he cites the Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, an anti-war source with scant credibility on nuclear issues, to make the case that the door used in the NCRI imagery was fabricated from a civilian source. Lewis also says there is no need for such a door “at a uranium-enrichment facility, which is not subject to massive radiation leaks.” But there are several reports, in the German press and elsewhere, about radiation leaks from uranium enrichment facilities; and massive leaks may not be necessary to cause political problems for the regime.

The NCRI claims the image, from one of its intelligence sources, presents an underground door constructed by an Iranian firm, Ganjineh Mehr Pars (GMP), which has ties to the Iranian nuclear establishment. Based on a review of the competing claims, my take is that the NCRI presents a more compelling case. And now it is up to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to sort out the evidence by demanding access to the site.

The NCRI also publicly revealed Lavizan-Shian in November 2004. The organization also named Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) as an undeclared suspect nuclear site in 2005, an allegation that President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly revealed in September 2009, shortly after they presented evidence of the facility to the IAEA. In September 2009, the NCRI also exposed Iran’s research and development on detonators.

The September exposé fits well with repeated statements of the IAEA. As reported by Reuters, “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures,” a reference to claims of explosives tests useful for development of nuclear bombs. In view of detonator work and the number of centrifuges that would be lower if those in question are the most advanced, there is potential for Iranian sneakout for the bomb.

A Way Forward to Avoid an Iranian Nuclear Sunset

On March 8, the senior American official referenced in the setup quotes also said that Washington’s goal is to reach a multi-phase deal with Iran that would last for over 10 years. But regarding this sunset clause, duration is one part of the agreement that still needs work, a view expressed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal on March 7.

Without mentioning a sunset clause as such, Netanyahu implicitly referenced it in his speech. I concur with Mike Singh of the Washington Institute, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal on March 4 that a deal should not “leave Iran with less nuclear infrastructure than the U.S. proposes … [and] the ‘sunset clause’ be scrapped.” The clause helps sneakout to Iran’s nuclear sunset, a view seemingly shared by Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations in a piece on March 1 in the Washington Post.

After Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on proposed legislation that would allow it to approve or reject any agreement to scale back Iran’s nuclear goals. He had announced the Senate would fast-track the vote. But the bill had not gone through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democrats, led by Sen. Menendez (D-N.J.), said in a letter to McConnell that the bill circumvented procedure by setting up a floor vote before the bill was discussed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Because the letter was signed by nine Democrats and the Independent Angus King (I-Maine), Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement: “The strongest signal we can send to the U.S. negotiators is having a veto proof majority in support of Congress weighing in on any final nuclear deal with Iran.” The Corker-Menendez proposal, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, might pass if a vote occurred after the March deadline for talks to reach a framework accord.

Obama can invoke the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to waive or suspend the most important U.S. sanctions — those penalizing third-country purchases of Iranian oil — on national security grounds, as James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute has written. The waiver is not a wise strategy in the talks, and might be overturned by Congress or the next president. Indeed, 47 Republican senators sent an open letter to Iran’s leaders that any nuclear deal signed with Obama would not last after he leaves office in January 2017.

The bottom line: Media coverage, congressional letters, and hearings ensure there is publicity for the triangle among break-out, sneakout, and an Iranian nuclear sunset.

Mandel Ngan / Staff

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