10 February 2015

Negotiating with Iran: Breakout and sneakout

Robert J. Goldston

Robert J. Goldston

Robert J. Goldston is a professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. He was the director of the US Energy Department’s Princeton Plasma Physics...


The P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany) are insisting that Iran reduce the uranium enrichment capacity of its centrifuge facilities at Natanz and Fordow. They want to increase to more than one year the time needed for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build its first nuclear weapon, a span of time called the “breakout period.” Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—the country’s highest-ranking political and religious authority, responsible for setting the tone and direction of the country’s domestic and foreign policies—has stated that to require Iran to dismantle existing enrichment equipment is “bullying and excessive.” But while international attention has been focused on the argument over breakout, there has been little public discussion of a much more critical issue: the use of clandestine facilities to produce highly enriched uranium and qualify weapons designs for use, dubbed “sneakout.”

Why one year? The P5+1 argue that a year is needed to execute three distinct, sequential steps: to detect enrichment beyond the agreed limit; to allow time for a new round of tougher sanctions applied on Iran to “bite;” and, finally, to mount a military intervention should those sanctions fail.

But why should we expect that newer, tougher sanctions—the second of the three steps—would have any real effect? Despite the fact that international sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy for many years, there is no evidence that the financial resources for this research were cut as a result. Realistically, if Iran felt that extreme circumstances—for example, the threat of invasion—required it to visibly break a new international agreement at a declared, safeguarded facility such as Natanz or Fordow, then no financial sanctions of any kind would change its course. This means that demanding a breakout time long enough for an illusory period in which sanctions could terminate Iran’s nuclear weapons' progress is indeed, in the Supreme Leader’s words, “bullying and excessive”—the only Iranians who would be affected are the country’s ordinary citizens; financial sanctions would not change the leadership’s decision to build a nuclear weapon.

Consequently, the breakout time really need only be longer than the period it would take to detect forbidden levels of enrichment at Natanz or Fordow, and then mount a military intervention to disable these facilities.

As for detection—the first of the three steps—the time needed for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to pick up a violation can be as little as 1 to 2 weeks. Inspectors could be present at all times, watching to see if low-enriched uranium is re-introduced into centrifuges for further enrichment, or if the piping between centrifuges is reconfigured for greater enrichment. At the same time, they could extract samples of enriched uranium on a daily basis for analysis by the IAEA to determine whether enrichment levels are within the allowable range. And if it were deemed cost-effective, analytical laboratories could be established in Iran to provide even faster turn-around. Eventually, real-time, on-line monitoring could be implemented.

Even with today’s breakout time of 2 to 3 months—less a few weeks to detect and confirm a violation—that leaves more than enough time to disable Iran’s declared enrichment facilities by military means, before breakout is complete.

Admittedly, military intervention is certainly not a desirable outcome, since Iran might well respond by moving to an aggressive clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons. But military action would be “the best bad option,” if Iran did indeed begin to enrich uranium towards weapons grade levels, in violation of its international agreement. Accordingly, it should be made clear to Iran that a breakout attempt would result in prompt international military intervention. This would have the added benefit of giving Iran’s leadership serious second thoughts about the likelihood of a successful breakout at Natanz and Fordow.

A bigger worry. While reducing Iran’s enrichment capacity is not necessary, it is, however, very important to reduce the amount of enriched uranium residing in Iran. According to a September, 2014, paper by Frank von Hippel and Alex Glaser of Princeton University, Iran currently has more than 5 metric tons of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride gas, also known as “uranium gas”—and only about 1.3 metric tons is needed to provide the enriched uranium feedstock for a first nuclear weapon. In a breakout scenario, cylinders of this enriched uranium gas could first be rapidly spirited away from Natanz and Fordow to unknown, hidden facilities, where they would be immune from military attack, and then used to at least triple the rate of production of bomb material.

To eliminate such a possibility, it should be agreed that on a monthly basis during the interim period all enriched uranium in Iran—not just gas but enriched uranium in other forms, including 20 percent enriched material—will be shipped to Russia under IAEA supervision, for processing into reactor fuel. If the resulting inventory of reactor-level enriched uranium gas in Iran is kept below 200 kilograms (kg), or about one month’s current production, this serious risk would be eliminated. Consequently, the breakout time at Natanz and Fordow would be increased to about six months—without reducing their enrichment capacity—which should be fully acceptable to both sides.

There have been press reports recently that the international negotiators are considering the export of Iran’s enriched uranium gas as an element of a final deal. This is a far better solution than reducing the number of centrifuges. Centrifuges in a declared facility are easy to destroy, as they are literally sitting targets for a military intervention in the case of breakout. The cylinders of uranium gas, on the other hand, are much more dangerous, because they can be rapidly transported and hidden. A six-month breakout period with 200 kg of uranium gas in Iran is much safer for the international community than a one-year period with 5 metric tons of this gas, perhaps growing at 200 kg per month. We do not know how many clandestine centrifuge halls are scattered elsewhere in Iran, nor how capable they are, ready to take advantage of reactor-grade uranium gas from Natanz and Fordow.

Beyond breakout. But much more likely than breakout is "sneakout"—the use of purpose-built, exclusively clandestine facilities to produce highly enriched uranium and examine weapons designs for use, through calculations and validating experiments. If another Fordow-sized plant is hidden under a different mountain in Iran, and fully equipped with current-generation Iranian centrifuges, it could produce enough weapons material for a bomb in about two years if starting from natural uranium, or in about seven months if starting from uranium enriched to the 4 percent level that is typical for reactor use. These factors mean that any deal must include adequate tools to cut off this route to weapons material, by assuring that no such clandestine facilities exist, nor do any clandestine plants to develop and produce centrifuges for them.

Another item important to cutting off Iran’s route to a nuclear bomb is to understand what the IAEA terms the “Possible Military Dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA contends, for example, that Iran may have performed implosion experiments relevant to a nuclear device, and made computer calculations of the dynamics of nuclear explosions. Iran failed to provide information on these topics by August 25, 2014, as it had promised, instead repeating its claim that the IAEA’s concerns are based on misinformation.  

The only way to limit the risk of sneakout is through much greater transparency on the part of Iran. Just as the P5+1 should relinquish its demand for a one-year breakout period, Iran should reconcile itself to true transparency. This is far more important to global nuclear security than a one-year breakout period at the declared facilities.

Iran will need to allow prompt access to all sites suspected of harboring clandestine centrifuge research and development, centrifuge manufacturing, uranium enrichment, weapons design calculations or experimental tests to validate a weapon design. It must also provide prompt, unsupervised access to all engineering and scientific personnel requested by the IAEA, as its investigation proceeds. Sometimes called “Additional Protocol Plus,” this is the only way to assure the absence of clandestine enrichment facilities. It is also the only way that problems regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program can be resolved in the 1 to 2 year period proposed by the IAEA’s director general, and the only way that there can be a reliable assurance that no such military efforts start up again in the future.

Iran may be concerned that any Iranian engineers and scientists interviewed by the IAEA will become targets for assassination by agents of foreign governments. The P5+1 should provide assurances against this, but Iran will also want to provide strict security for these persons.

To ensure ongoing cooperation by Iran, sanctions will need to be suspended or lifted only in response to continuing true transparency, so that there will be a very strong continuing incentive for Iran to provide the required information and access.

Elements of a good deal. As part of Additional Protocol Plus, Iran must be fully transparent about the history of its uranium enrichment program and any nuclear-weapons-related research it pursued before Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons in 2003. This needn’t require the admission of any “guilt” on Iran’s part, as Iran could argue that its research and development program was purely defensive and fully justified at the time; after all, the United States was greatly worried about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities in the years leading up to 2003 as well. And after this concern was eliminated by the United States-led invasion of Iraq, the subsequent fatwa put an end to all of Iran’s officially sanctioned weapons activities. Iran may also be able to claim that any less organized activities since that time—which it will also need to reveal—were not officially sanctioned. With the issues framed in this manner, Iran could more easily be open about its past record. Shame is not a necessary element of a deal; only transparency is required.

Iran’s nuclear history will have an effect on the time required for the IAEA’s investigations, as will Iran’s swiftness of cooperation. Progress by the IAEA will, in turn, influence the rate at which sanctions are suspended or lifted. It is essential to recognize, however, that the critical issue to the success of any deal must be Iran’s full transparency about its past and present, not the specifics of Iran’s past activities in and of themselves. What's done is done; no one can negotiate about their past actions.

These proposals can be viewed as the components of a “good deal” by hardliners on both sides. The White House can argue to its friends in the Middle East and to the US Congress that it is gaining a clear commitment that Natanz and Fordow will not metastasize into production plants for weapons materials, and that unfettered inspections will ensure that Iran will not be able to pursue a clandestine weapons program in the future.

Meanwhile, Iran's government can argue to its own hardliners that it has lost nothing: It has not given up its existing centrifuge capacity, and a prompt military response to any breakout was to be expected in any case. Revelation of minor research and development efforts aimed at self-defense, which were in any case largely cut off by the Supreme Leader’s fatwa, can be cast as a non-issue—or even as a warning to others in the region that Iran has some knowledge and capabilities in these areas. And, of course, sanctions would be progressively suspended and then lifted.

Looking to the future, when we have gotten to the point of real-time IAEA monitoring of enrichment levels at Natanz and Fordow, and when Iran has earned the trust to be treated as any other member in good standing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we should by then have implemented the same real-time monitoring in the rest of the world’s uranium enrichment plants (including those in nuclear weapons states such as the United States), an element in assuring that these states are not expanding their stockpiles of weapons material. And perhaps we will have agreed internationally on a strengthened Additional Protocol. These actions would make the world that Iran joins at the end of the deal a much safer place.

The author would like to thank James Acton, Ollie Heinonen, Frank von Hippel, Zia Mian, and Sayed Hossein Mousavian. The opinions expressed here are his own.