Breakout, Shmeakout: The Wrong Way to Assess a Nuclear Deal with Iran

by Paul Pillar

Pens that diplomats wield can be mightier than swords, but not necessarily because they destroy swords, much less the ability to make them. An agreement reached through diplomacy is a joint affirmation that it is in the parties’ mutual interest to behave in certain ways and a joint commitment not to do other things they are capable of doing. Even a surrender by a belligerent defeated in warfare involves a forgoing of continued resistance that would be possible but costly to both sides. In short, international agreements are more a matter of intentions and motivations than of capabilities

A failure to understand this infects discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and may have infected the U.S. negotiating position. There is a preoccupation with “breakout” — a scenario in which an Iran supposedly determined to violate an agreement suddenly races to build a nuclear weapon — and with stripping away Iranian capabilities in order to lengthen the time required under such a scenario for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. The fixation with breakout, with the repeated references to it as a supposed reason to be wary of any agreement with Iran, is misplaced for several reasons. One is that any conceivable agreement would entail a longer breakout time than without an agreement. That time already has been lengthened by the preliminary agreement reached last year, under which Iran has eliminated its stock of medium-enriched uranium and stopped making any more of it, as well as capping its supply of low-enriched uranium.

In any event, breakout time is immaterial when, under the extensive and unprecedented monitoring arrangements that will be a central feature of the agreement and a major reason for concluding it, any Iranian cheating in its use of permitted nuclear facilities would immediately be detected. As Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright have noted, whether breakout time is two months or six months or something else makes no difference when any U.S. or other foreign response to cheating, including a possible military response, could be mounted within a couple of weeks. If there were any prospect of Iran using clandestine, undeclared facilities to build a bomb — which is the way all past proliferators have made their bombs — this would be at least as much of a possibility without an agreement, and without the expanded inspections that go with it, than with an agreement.

The most fundamental reason the narrow focus on breakout is misplaced is that it disregards Iranian intentions and motivations. A successful agreement will be one that codifies a shared interest in an Iran whose nuclear program stays entirely peaceful and is a normal member of the community of nations, not subject to the debilitating economic sanctions that the United States has maintained at significant political and economic cost to itself. A successful agreement also will be one that each side, including Iran, will have strong motivation to maintain because it is clearly more in its interests than a breakdown of the agreement would be.

Largely missing from discussion of Iran breaking out of such an agreement is attention to whether Iran would have the incentive to do so. It would not. Doing so would subject Iran to far more disadvantageous conditions than it would have under an accord, without gaining any strategic advantage. A single nuclear device, or even a few, would serve no purpose for Iran when even the mere attempt to flaunt such a device for influence would imply willingness to escalate an issue to the nuclear level, and escalation would face the reality of vastly superior nuclear weapons arsenals owned by the countries Iran would most likely confront.

Cheating, or disavowing the agreement, would immediately — even before completing a single nuclear weapon — throw Iran back into the worst costs and consequences of being an international pariah, from which it has been working so hard to free itself. The U.S. Congress undoubtedly would enact, as fast as clerks could call the roll, anti-Iranian sanctions more severe than ever before. A military attack on Iran also would suddenly become much more likely than before. Those in the United States and Israel who have argued for an attack on grounds that negotiating with duplicitous Iranians is a mistake would now start winning the argument — and the Iranians are smart enough to realize that.

In short, breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran.

If the nuclear negotiations fail — or if Congress effectively destroys an agreement by interfering with its implementation — because of details about the number of centrifuges spinning or the number of months required to enrich uranium, this would be a major missed opportunity and an unwisely counterproductive pursuit of the objective of keeping the Iranian program peaceful. It also would be a destructively small-minded approach toward the use of diplomacy to pursue U.S. interests.

Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Coburg Palais in Vienna July 13, 2014 during the latest round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Credit: AFP/Samuel Kabani

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. I get the feeling this whole thing about a “breakout” capability is a face-saving move for the the West. After over 20 years of insisting with absolute and unmistakable certainty that Iran is within 6-12 months of a bomb, that we must attack them now and start another war before Iran gets the bomb, and the 6-12 month keep sliding into the indeterminate future forever and ever and ever without Iran ever exploding the bomb the public had been promised, eventually the public loses its faith in ANY assessment by their leaders. Who would have thought that our democratic leaders are actually more dishonest than those tyrannical, untrustworthy, unelected Iranian leaders? So, now the bar has been lowered (or is it raised?) Instead of preventing Iran from an actual bomb we must now insist on preventing Iran from the precursor to the bomb, the “breakout” capability. Because a breakout capability is a lot less tangible than an actual bomb that goes “boom”. It’s not something you can put your finger on. It’s something that the public doesn’t understand and doesn’t need the pictures of a mushroom cloud to believe. You can still scare the public with it. So, now our mission is even more ridiculous. Instead of preventing Iran from getting an actual bomb, we must deprive it the possibility of the possibility (breakout!) of a bomb!

  2. “Breakout is a scary fantasy”. How true, these words. Along with the human rights issue[s] that some point up, but are careful not to explain who would/should replace those in control, just their own drum beating, whether paid for by outsiders or perhaps being true believers. Regardless, there is a situation that needs to be settled, but adding a continual stream of items that have to be met, just as the Israeli Netanyahoo does with the so-called peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the U.S. backing of course, doesn’t produce any true resolve. It does produce more human right/suffering, of which those same naysayers point to as reason enough to continue with the present course, though not to their own selves for insisting upon such, preferring to cast anyone who doesn’t agree, as being hatemongers, etc., etc. We have already witnessed the naysayers response to regime change, and what it has wrought for the M.E, and I don’t mean the metal fence or bangle hanging from the wrist.

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