Breaking Down Breakout

Is Iran racing towards a bomb?


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“I’m concerned about the future of the nuclear deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, “but I’m not alarmed at this point.”

Kelsey Davenport is the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and an expert on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. She sat down with Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione and Michelle Dover to debunk a few myths surrounding Iran and the bomb. 

Myth #1: Iran is racing to build a nuclear bomb. 

“Every step that Iran has taken to date indicates that they want to preserve the JCPOA. It is very clear that the slow and reversible steps that Iran has taken - with inspectors watching every move - is indicative of a pressure campaign, not a dash to a bomb.”

“Luckily for us, the steps that Iran has taken to date, they've taken very transparently,” said Davenport. “They’ve taken steps that are quickly reversible so they can return to compliance with the deal if their sanctions demands are met.” 

“When we look at these steps as a whole, they don't significantly increase the proliferation risk posed by Iran's nuclear program,” Davenport continued. “Iran could have taken much more serious steps that would have posed much more of a risk. But right now this is a predictable response and they're focused on increasing leverage at the negotiating table to gain sanctions relief - not dashing for a bomb.” 

Myth #2: Breakout time determines when Iran becomes a nuclear power. 

“‘Breakout’ is a commonly used term to discuss how quickly a country could produce enough nuclear material for one bomb,” explained Davenport. “I want to emphasize that this is about producing the fissile material. It's not actually about building the entire bomb.”

By this one measure, “Iran’s breakout is still about one year or slightly less than one year,” said Davenport. “Once Iran produced material to weapon-grade, it would then have to take that material and convert it into a metallic form (the core of the nuclear weapon essentially) and fit it with an explosive package. Any of these steps that Iran would take going forward - enriching additional uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels - all of these actions would be quickly detected by international inspectors.”

“[Breakout] can be a helpful measure for gauging how far along a country's nuclear program is, but it doesn't take into account the most important element,” concluded Davenport. “And that's intent: is the country actually interested in pursuing a nuclear weapon?”

Davenport agrees with the latest assessment of Israeli intelligence as reported by The Jerusalem Post. Israel believes that Iran today it would still take Iran about a year to make the material for one bomb. But importantly, “Iran is not currently interested in rapidly developing an atomic bomb, but would rather see a return of all countries, especially the United States to the nuclear agreement signed in 2015.” 

Myth #3: The Deal is dead. 

The move by the Europeans to bring Iran’s breaches of the agreement back to the UN Security Council are intended to pressure Iran, but they could also kill the entire agreement, provoking a new phase of the crisis. “The deal isn't dead yet, but it certainly could be,” she said. “A lot depends on how the Europeans manage this dispute resolution mechanism process.”

“The dispute resolution mechanism was set up in the JCPOA to resolve any allegations of noncompliance. Members of the JCPOA will meet and they will try to address the issue. And if they can't, the ministers won't meet and they can also invite an independent advisory opinion on how to resolve the crisis,” explained Davenport. “Now if this period ends with a resolution, then the matter could go to the UN Security Council.”

“But this is a risky move. They could lose control of this process and increase the risk of security council sanctions being reimposed, which would certainly kill the deal.”

Finally, Davenport reminds us that we are not flying blind.

“One key element of Iranians’ performance under the nuclear deal is typically overlooked,” Davenport continued. “Iran has continued to allow inspectors in its nuclear facilities beyond what's required by international law. It's continued to abide by the additional monitoring and verification mechanisms put in place by the JCPOA.”

“And this gives the international community the highest possible assurance that if Iran were to further deviate from the deal or take one of these steps towards a nuclear weapon, that it would be quickly detected.”

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

About Press the Button: in addition to "The Interview" in which Joe Cirincione sits down with prominent thinkers, legislators, activists, and grantees working on nuclear weapons issues for a short, illuminating conversation, episodes have two other segments: "Early Warning" — a round-up of the most pressing nuclear news in 7 minutes, roughly the same amount of time the US president has to authorize a nuclear weapons launch in the event of an incoming attack on the United States; and the "Q&A"   — a segment where Joe answers questions submitted by our listeners. 



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