Report: Iran’s Effective Breakout

September 24, 2014

            The issue of Iran’s “breakout” capability, the time needed to obtain enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb, is a central issue in negotiations with the world’s six major powers. But a new report by the Arms Control Association argues that “effective breakout,” or the time needed to build a credible nuclear arsenal, should also be considered to find “the proper balance between verification and limitations” in a final deal. The following are highlights from the brief by Greg Thielmann with a link to the full text.

• One of the critical objectives of negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is to lengthen the amount of time Iran would need to build a bomb if it chose to break out of its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations.
• The common definition of the term “breakout” is the time between the moment that the international community recognizes that a dash for a bomb is underway and the point at which enough fissile material for one weapon has been accumulated. The length of this timeline is a function of several factors.
- The time elapsed between the start of a breakout attempt and the discovery of that attempt.
- If the uranium path is the shortest route, the amount and enrichment level of the breakout country’s uranium stockpile.
- The state (gas or solid) and form (powder or metal) of that stockpile, and
- If gas centrifuges are used to enrich uranium, their number and efficiency.
• Although this definition of breakout has some utility, it does not provide a reliable guide to effective-breakout timelines because it excludes important steps that would be required to build and deploy even one weapon and ignores Iran’s particular real-world requirements for building a credible nuclear arsenal with multiple weapons.
• In addition to limits on the capacity to enrich weapons grade material in a given time, P5+1 negotiators must seek other elements in a final deal, including strengthened international monitoring, that taken together, can dissuade Iran from seeking to break out of the NPT.
• A satisfactory compromise agreement will enable Iran to claim success in protecting its right to develop a peaceful and independent nuclear energy sector and convince Iran that pursuing the NPT breakout option is far too risky for the regime to seriously contemplate.
Click here for the full text.