How Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Easily Could Become a ‘Sneakout’
A character in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” describes how he went bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly. After the latest news out of Tehran, the same can be said for Iran’s continued progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Last weekend Iranian officials announced the third in an unfolding series of ultimatums, whereby Tehran progressively ratchets up its violations of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) unless Europe offsets the pain of U.S. sanctions.
In May, Iran served notice it would grow its stockpiles of low enriched uranium (LEU) and heavy water beyond the limits of the nuclear deal. In July, it began enriching LEU marginally above the JCPOA’s cap. These moves, although worrisome, do not immediately bring Tehran dangerously closer to a bomb. Its LEU stock is too little for a nuclear weapon, and its heavy water is useless until completion of a corresponding reactor — likely years away.
Instead, Iran’s initial steps began shrinking the “breakout time” it needs to produce enough fissile material for a bomb steadily, rather than immediately. Breakout estimates can be as much an art as a science, but whereas its current timeframe is roughly 10-11 months, a year from now it could shrink to approximately 7-8 months. This would still leave opportunities for inspectors to detect and report a breakout attempt.
Specifically, Tehran declared it no longer would adhere to the nuclear deal’s research and development (R&D) restrictions. Unlike its previous moves, which eat into breakout time slowly, this latest step threatens to do so precipitously by paving the way for a major expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity.
The JCPOA limits this capacity to 5,060 antiquated and inefficient IR-1 centrifuges, while also permitting testing on small numbers of more advanced centrifuges. Crucially, Iran cannot use these tests to accumulate LEU and thereby cut breakout time.
But now Tehran is breaking these exact ceilings. It is installing advanced centrifuges well beyond the numbers allowed in the nuclear deal. More importantly, it will begin adding the enriched uranium from these tests to its stockpile.
These moves will not put Iran perilously closer to a bomb tomorrow. But nor should they be confused with Tehran’s much more gradual nuclear escalations from previous months — for two reasons.
First, these advanced centrifuges will accelerate the ongoing expansion of Iran’s LEU stockpile. Though these machines are being installed by the dozens and hundreds, as compared to the thousands of IR-1s currently running, they can produce enriched uranium much more quickly than anything Iran has used to date. Thus, small expansions in overall centrifuge numbers could translate to disproportionate reductions in breakout time.
Second, unlike previous escalations, this gambit could push Iran’s nuclear program into dangerous uncharted territory. Increasing its stockpiles and enrichment level, as it has done since May, still leaves Iran appreciably further from a bomb than it was before the nuclear deal.
But fast-tracking its R&D program could give Iran something it has never had, and much sooner than expected. It could learn how to operate an industrial-scale enrichment program capable of producing multiple nuclear bombs’ worth of fissile material before any inspectors could detect it. Tellingly, the JCPOA sought to delay such breakthroughs for more than a decade by increasing these activities very gradually, past the point when most other meaningful restrictions already would have terminated.
Even though Iran announced last year a new manufacturing facility for advanced centrifuges, it still would need time to build and install vast quantities of these newer machines.
But upon completion, its breakout time would shrink significantly — and at once. From that point, a breakout easily could become an undetectable “sneakout.”
This presents American policymakers with a closing window that could slam shut quickly. They must prepare options beyond sanctions, which only generate Iranian counter-pressure — whether in the nuclear arena or in the Strait of Hormuz — without providing any options to deter or address that counter-pressure.
Indeed, the current U.S. approach is driving events toward one of three unpalatable outcomes: further Iranian progress toward a bomb; a European-Iranian deal on sanctions relief that effectively restores the status quo-ante of the JCPOA and flouts the entire U.S. sanctions regime; or renewed negotiations under the shadow of Iran’s nuclear escalations and serious rifts between the United States and its diplomatic partners.
American policymakers must implement more robust measures to develop some much-needed leverage. Credible military threats most reliably compel Tehran to roll back its progress toward a bomb. The Trump administration must prepare these measures, not more sanctions, to help ensure it can prevent a nuclear Iran as time begins running out.
Originally published in The Hill on September 12, 2019.