ISIS on Iran Nuke: Low Risk in 2012

February 14, 2012
The Institute for Science and International Security published “Preventing Iran from getting Nuclear Weapons: Constraining its future options” by David Albright, Paul Brannan, Andrea Stricker, and Christina Walrond. The report concludes, “In 2012, the probability of all of the scenarios occurring is judged to be low. This can be interpreted to mean that Iran is currently in a poor position to build nuclear weapons covertly and is thus unlikely to attempt to do so this year.” The following is the summary from the report.
Without past negotiated outcomes, international pressure, sanctions, and intelligence operations, Iran would likely have nuclear weapons by now. Iran has proven vulnerable to international pressure. It now faces several inhibitions against building nuclear weapons, not least of which is fear of a military strike by Israel and perhaps others if it “breaks out” by egregiously violating its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and moves to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons.
However, threats of pre-emptive military strikes alone have been unproductive in extending this inhibition against building nuclear weapons. Instead, these threats have led Iran to better protect its nuclear facilities and activities and allowed it to make false comparisons to the case of Iraq, undermining support in much of the world for increasing pressure internationally out of fear that pressure would lead to a preventive attack.
Iran is already capable of making weapon-grade uranium and a crude nuclear explosive device. Nonetheless, Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012, in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so and limited in its options for quickly making enough weapon-grade uranium. Iran continues to be subject to a complex set of international actions that constrain its nuclear options.
Faced with the difficulties and risks of military options and the marginal benefits of negotiations during the last several years, an alternative third option, born out of frustration and slow, patient work, has developed. It builds on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that delegitimize certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear programs. However, it goes beyond these efforts by increasing the chance of detecting secret nuclear activities and heightening barriers against Iran achieving its nuclear objectives. Its goal is to create and implement measures to delay, thwart, and deter Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities. This strategy is having some significant successes, including delaying Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons and creating significant deterrence against it building nuclear weapons today. Absent a meaningful negotiated settlement, which remains the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran, its longer-term prognosis is difficult to predict without broader application.
These methods help explain Iran’s delayed progress in developing its nuclear weapons capabilities. However, they have not completely stopped Iran from making progress toward that goal. Iran continues to make both 3.5 and 19.75 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) and it has said it will soon triple its rate of 19.75 percent LEU production with the installation of IR-1 centrifuges at the subterranean Fordow enrichment site. Enrichment at this site started in late 2011 or early 2012.
This project has examined a wide range of future options that Iran may use during the next several years to build nuclear weapons (see table 2). The four that emerged as showing the highest probability of occurring in the period from now through 2015 are:
  • Dash at a Declared Enrichment Site
  • Dash at a Covert Enrichment Site
  • Cheating in Plain Sight
  • A Parallel Program
In all cases ISIS evaluated, each potential nuclear future is not inevitable. International actions may delay or prevent them. Iran may decide that the potential costs are too high and may choose not to pursue any of them. Despite the existing constraints, however, Iran may decide that at some point obtaining nuclear weapons is worth the risks.
In 2012, the probability of all of the scenarios occurring is judged to be low. This can be interpreted to mean that Iran is currently in a poor position to build nuclear weapons covertly and is thus unlikely to attempt to do so this year. In 2013 and onward, the probabilities of the four futures mentioned above occurring begin to increase toward a medium likelihood.
None of the probabilities of the nuclear futures evaluated by ISIS is judged as being high; many remain low. These judgments reflect technical challenges Iran will face, international actions that will continue to constrain particular nuclear futures, and the extent of pressure on Iran today and that is expected to be applied in the future to deter Iran from building nuclear weapons.
However, low-probability events should not be interpreted in the context of this study as not meriting concern. The assigned probabilities during the next several years provide no reason for complacency. Given the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran, even options with low probabilities of occurring require action designed to keep them low. Similarly, since an Iran with nuclear weapons would be a high impact event, futures with a low probability, or those that are unlikely to occur, are still highly important and could have a severe impact. Thus, working to lower their probability of occurrence is important, as is developing contingency plans in case they do occur. In this report, the medium probability futures are the top priorities, and they require extra effort to reduce their likelihood of occurring.
According to this analysis, the options that Iran would tend to favor involve developing and deploying advanced centrifuges, continuing to find ways to produce higher enriched uranium in greater quantities under a civilian cover, building confidence in an ability to build covert sites, evading answering the IAEA’s questions about past nuclear weaponization activities, and better protecting nuclear sites against military strikes. The task is to prevent Iran from succeeding by lowering the probabilities that Iran could achieve any of these nuclear futures while keeping it within the constraints of the NPT.
This report shows that Iran’s capability to build nuclear weapons is constrained. However, this capability nevertheless increases with time, and Iran could develop more options to acquire nuclear weapons in the coming years unless it is further constrained or the probabilities of these futures occurring are lowered further. Additional constraints can emerge through negotiations, but these are more likely if a range of methods are utilized along the way to slow Iran’s progress.
Any pragmatic future strategy must inhibit Iran’s nuclear progress and pressure it into changing course while offering it an alternative, more prosperous pathway forward. But as we seek and engage in negotiations for a long-term solution, the key goal must be, at the same time, to implement additional measures to delay, thwart, and deter Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities and inhibit its ability to break out. In particular, such a strategy should focus on several key priorities:
  • More effective legal mechanisms to stop Iran from acquiring key goods for its nuclear programs. A priority is China’s domestic enforcement of sanctions and trade controls;
  • Better detection of Iran’s illicit procurement efforts and broader enforcement of legal mechanisms worldwide;
  • Increased efforts in countries of transit concern to prevent Iran from transshipping banned goods;
  • Stepped up operations to detect clandestine Iranian nuclear activities, including heightened intelligence operations inside Iran aimed at detecting secret nuclear sites and activities and encouraging defections of nuclear program “insiders”;
  • Covert action to slow Iran’s nuclear program, particularly if the conflict transforms into a protracted Cold War style stand-off between Iran and several members of the international community; and,
  • Increased economic and financial sanctions aimed at augmenting pressure, combined with an effort to displace Iranian oil exports.
A parallel strategy alongside pressure is to seek interim negotiated constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that serve to reduce concerns about an Iranian breakout or dash to the bomb. Iran can receive tangible benefits in return for reducing its options to build nuclear weapons quickly and in secret. All sides could build valuable trust, something currently in short supply.
Table 4 evaluates a set of interim measures. The measures are ranked on their ability on an interim basis to inhibit breakout to weapons, improve detection of secret nuclear activities and sites, and prevent further development, diffusion, and protection of centrifuge assets. The table shows that none of the measures are effective at accomplishing all three goals. As these are interim measures, the P5+1 should focus on the strategies that impact Iran’s ability to break out in the short term, deploy advanced centrifuges, and to diffuse and better protect its centrifuge assets. The priority measures based on the ranking in are:
  • Cap all enrichment at the level of five percent;
  • Freeze centrifuge installation at Qom (limit of two IR-1 centrifuge cascades);
  • Limit the number of advanced centrifuges enriching uranium to fewer than 500 and limit deployment exclusively to the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP); and
  • Deposit all 19.75 percent LEU overseas.
Based on the public discussion, the following summarizes the most commonly discussed incentives in the context of an interim agreement:
  • Provision of 19.75 percent LEU fuel for TRR, starting within one year of date of agreement;
  • Provision of LEU targets for medical isotope production;
  • Provision of medical isotopes of the type that the TRR would produce; and
  • Commitment by P5+1 not to seek new U.N. Security Council sanctions for a defined period of time, contingent on implementation of agreement.
At the same time, the United States and its allies should reject any Iranian effort to trade interim measures for a reduction in sanctions or commitments not to add national or regional sanctions. In addition, Iran sought in an agreeemnt negotiated by Turkey, Brazil, and Iran to establish an essentially unbridled right to uranium enrichment. But the P5+1 is unlikely to acknowledge Iran’s right to uranium enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without a verified assurance that it is in compliance with this treaty, something lacking today. Iran needs to first satisfy the many concerns raised on an on-going basis by the IAEA about Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Significant sanctions relief and how to ensure Iran is in compliance with the NPT are the proper subject of long-term negotiations.
The best remedy is a negotiated long-term resolution of the nuclear issues. Although Iran remains difficult to engage in a comprehensive negotiated solution, the shape of a future solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis is important to consider now. Several earlier attempts to engage Iran in a long-term solution have laid the basis for an acceptable outcome including illuminating creative diplomatic methods of achieving a compromise. The first was the “freeze for freeze” proposal, whereby Iran would have agreed to a suspension of its enrichment program in return for a freeze in additional U.N. sanctions. More recently, Russia proposed a step-wise resolution to the issue, although it did not release its proposal publicly.
These earlier efforts have created a sound foundation to build on. One lesson is that because the situation is so complicated, the negotiating goal should be a framework agreement that can incorporate a series of stages where each step includes concessions by Iran matched with incentives or concessions by the P5+1. (The P5+1 is the main negotiating partner of Iran composed of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.)
This report discusses the essential elements of such an agreement. Table 5 in the Appendices lists ISIS rough proposal for a five stage framework agreement with Iran. The five stages in brief are:
1. Updated, verified “freeze for freeze” agreement
2. Iran coming clean in a verifiable manner about its past and possible on-going nuclear weaponization activities and accomplishments and receiving significant sanctions relief
3. Intensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification, temporary suspension of sensitive Iranian nuclear programs, and provisional suspension of U.N. Security Council sanctions
4. IAEA certification of absence of undeclared nuclear activities, resumption of Iran’s nuclear program, provision of major incentives package, and end of U.S. sanctions
5. Growth of Iran’s civil nuclear program and end of all remaining sanctions
Absent a negotiated outcome, the international community must be prepared to signal for years if necessary that an Iran that seeks nuclear weapons will never be integrated. It must not acquiesce to Iran’s current trajectory or give up on sanctions and other measures while accepting the current level of ambiguity over Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations. Ultimately, a negotiated solution remains the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran, and increased pressure offers the best hope of convincing Iran to undertake successful negotiations.
This report builds on a series of ISIS reports, research, and workshops during the last year. Background information and reports are available on the ISIS web site at