Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Breakout

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, he can be expected to argue that any nuclear deal with Iran should eliminate its capability to produce nuclear weapons, not just aim to prevent Iran from producing them. But such an accord is neither achievable nor necessary to safeguard the security of the United States and its friends in the Middle East.

To Mr. Netanyahu, eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons capability means banning uranium enrichment, a dual-capable technology that can produce both fuel for civil nuclear reactors and weapons-grade uranium for nuclear bombs. Allowing even a limited enrichment program, in his view, would make Iran a “threshold” nuclear weapon state — able to break out of an agreement and produce nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.

Banning enrichment and dismantling Iran’s existing enrichment facilities would indeed be the best negotiated outcome. But such an agreement is not attainable.

Iran’s leaders have convinced the Iranian people that a ban on enrichment would deprive them of an inalienable right to pursue civil nuclear power as they see fit and impede their scientific advancement. Iranians across the political spectrum would prefer to forgo an agreement and muddle through under existing sanctions rather than accept what they would regard as a national humiliation.

Moreover, in a fundamental sense, it is too late to eliminate an Iranian enrichment capability. Iran already has the knowledge of how to produce and operate centrifuges. Even if somehow Tehran could be coerced into dismantling its current enrichment program, it would retain the ability to reconstitute it at a future time.

Fortunately, even if an agreement cannot eliminate Iran’s capability to enrich uranium to weapons grade, it can prevent Iran from exercising that capability. It can do so by deterring Iran’s leaders from making the decision to break out of the agreement and produce nuclear weapons. To deter such a decision, a deal should meet three requirements.

First, it should have rigorous monitoring measures to convince Iran that any attempt to violate and break out of the agreement at either declared or covert sites would be detected very quickly. This would require intrusive verification provisions that go beyond the measures contained in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, including frequent access to centrifuge production facilities, detailed reporting of nuclear-related procurement and robust inspection procedures.

Second, the accord should ensure that the time Iranians would need to produce one bomb’s-worth of weapons-grade uranium would be long enough to enable the United States and others to intervene decisively to stop them. The Obama administration is seeking to increase this “breakout time” from the current two-to-three months to at least one year, which is more than enough time to exhaust diplomatic efforts and economic pressures before turning, if necessary, to military force.

Getting to one year would depend on a package of interrelated constraints, including on the number and type of operating centrifuges and the amount of enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to retain. There is nothing magic about any particular number of centrifuges. The lower the amount of enriched uranium, the higher can be the number of centrifuges without shortening breakout time, and vice versa.

With the Iranians reportedly willing to ship most of their enriched uranium stocks to Russia, the so-called P5+1 — the United States, France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain — may be closing in on a package that would achieve the desired one-year breakout time. Negotiators may have taken a step closer last weekend in Geneva by making headway on the agreement’s duration, apparently discussing a duration of perhaps 15 years, with some restrictions on Iran gradually relaxed in the final years of the agreement.

Third, it is necessary to convince Iran’s leaders not only that breakout would take a long time and would be detected promptly, but also that they would face a harsh international response that would prevent their breakout from succeeding. To supplement any agreement, the Obama administration should collaborate with its international partners and the Congress on contingency plans — including both economic and military options — to ensure that the threat of a decisive response to a breakout attempt is credible.

Members of Congress and other interested parties, both at home and abroad, will judge for themselves whether any agreement eventually reached provides a sufficient deterrent against a future Iranian decision to pursue nuclear weapons. In forming these judgments, it is important to compare the eventual deal not with an ideal but unattainable agreement but with the alternatives to a negotiated solution.

One alternative is to try to ratchet up sanctions dramatically in the hope of pressuring Iran to make concessions it has been unwilling to make. But it may be very difficult to persuade states that have supported sanctions at considerable cost to themselves to adopt much tougher measures, especially if Iran is successful in portraying itself as not to blame for the negotiating impasse. And even if the United States could persuade others to adopt stronger sanctions, it is questionable whether they would produce the desired Iranian flexibility, given Iran’s ability so far to withstand punishing sanctions and the repeated assertions by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Iran can make do economically without an agreement.

Another alternative is military force. A military attack could set back Iran’s nuclear program. But such a setback would probably only be temporary, and the use of force could trigger an Iranian decision to go for nuclear weapons as soon as possible, a decision the American intelligence community believes has so far been deferred. Moreover, the use of force could end I.A.E.A. monitoring, the best source of information about Iran’s nuclear program, and lead to the unraveling of international sanctions that would be needed to keep pressure on Iran in a post-attack environment.

Those like Mr. Netanyahu who have opposed any agreement except on terms that cannot be realized should not engage in wishful thinking about the likelihood of such alternative approaches succeeding. They should be clear-eyed in comparing these alternatives with the kind of agreement that can be realized. Of course, if Iran is not prepared to accept a reasonable deal, the United States would have little choice but to turn to nondiplomatic approaches. But before it does, Washington should make every effort to negotiate a sound agreement which, while not eliminating Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons, can effectively deter Iran’s leaders from exercising that capability.

Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served on the U.S. delegation to the Iran nuclear negotiations from 2009 to 2013.

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