What Does a One Year “Breakout” Really Mean?

In the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, the P5+1 appear to have coalesced around one main objective: ensuring that Iran would need at least one year to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon using its declared facilities and material in a “breakout” scenario.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 21, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that the Obama administration’s “entire focus is on ensuring that as a practical matter [Iran] is not able to produce enough material for a bomb in less than one year.”  And on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond declared a “one-year minimum breakout period” to be the P5+1’s “key red line” in the negotiations.

The assumption is that one year would allow the international community sufficient time to detect any violation; impose a new round of sanctions; and if sanctions fail, to take military action before Iran succeeds in making a bomb’s worth of fuel.  But when did this objective become the P5+1’s “key red line”?  What does a one year warning really achieve?

The first prominent mention of this benchmark appears to originate from Gary Samore, in a January 2014 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for Bloomberg View. Dr. Samore, who had recently stepped down as the Obama administration’s WMD coordinator, argued that imposing a breakout time of one year would be a compromise that the administration would “settle for”: “If we were confident that we would have a year’s advance notice that they were starting to break out – to produce weapons-grade uranium – that would give us more than enough time to destroy the facility.  If the Iranians accepted this, I think the White House would go along.”

In the year since this interview, the one-year benchmark had become the administration’s official position. In an October 2014 interview, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the P5+1 had “set a very clear standard” for the nuclear talks with Iran: “We’ve pledged that our goal is to shut off each pathway sufficient that we know we have a breakout time of a minimum of a year that gives us the opportunity to respond if they were to try to do that.”  Unlike Dr. Samore, however, Secretary Kerry did not explicitly invoke the possibility of a military response.

Yet any agreement that restricts Iran’s breakout capability to one year necessarily would rely upon the threat of military force for enforcement. One year is not enough time for new sanctions to take hold.  Robert J. Goldston, a physics professor at Princeton University, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on February 10, argued that it is “illusory” to believe that any new round of international sanctions would “change the leadership’s decision to build a nuclear weapon” in one year. He continued: “If Iran felt that extreme circumstances […] required it to visibly break a new international agreement at a declared, safeguarded facility […] then no financial sanctions of any kind would change its course.”  Military action becomes “the best bad option” in such a scenario, according to Dr. Goldston.

However, some supporting the administration’s negotiating position may not see that the logic of a one-year breakout benchmark requires the threat of military action on the back end.  In a February 12 column in the New York Times, Roger Cohen equated the “dismantlement camp” – those who say “every Iranian centrifuge much go” – with “a war camp.”  On the other side stands the “curtailment camp”: those seeking a deal that combines “intensive verification […] an extended period of much-reduced enrichment […] and assuring that Iran is kept at least one year from any potential ‘breakout’ to bomb manufacture.”  Yet Mr. Cohen left unanswered how the international community should respond to a theoretical Iranian violation of a “curtailment” agreement.

Beyond the specific case of Iran, the P5+1’s position also has implications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.  An agreement allowing Iran to maintain enrichment activities would represent a concession to a country that has repeatedly violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, failed to come clean about the history of its nuclear program, and has been subject to U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the suspension of enrichment.  Such an agreement would give ground on non-proliferation standards for the sake of reaching an accord.  Allies, in the region and elsewhere, could seek similar deals allowing some enrichment or reprocessing capability, as long as that capability kept them at least one year from a breakout.

The rationale for the P5+1’s one-year benchmark is not clear.  Dr. Samore, in his Bloomberg interview, stated that the Obama’s administration’s strategy throughout the negotiations has been “to buy time.”  This one-year benchmark may be an effort to do so.  But that objective may not deliver the stable resolution to the Iranian nuclear problem that the world is hoping for.