America's Next Big Challenge: Preventing an Iranian Nuclear Leakout

Forget "sneakout" and "breakout." If Iran's nuclear technology falls into the wrong hands, it could mean a global disaster.

The April 2 framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran fails to address an important risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Through a combination of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities and facilities and more intrusive verification mechanisms, the framework adequately addresses two major risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program—breakout and sneakout. The framework, however, completely ignores the risk of leakout: the proliferation of nuclear technology and expertise from Iran to other countries. Iran, once the recipient of foreign nuclear assistance, is now poised to provide that assistance, either deliberately or through unauthorized acts by scientists or companies, to other countries.

Indeed, certain provisions of the framework may exacerbate the risk of leakout if preventive measures are not taken. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has said that Iran may sell part of its stockpile of low enriched uranium on the international market and “hopefully make some money.” The final agreement, due for completion by June 30, needs to include provisions to minimize the risk of nuclear leakout from Iran. The P5+1 should insist that Iran forgo most exports of nuclear technology, grant the P5+1 oversight over proposed exports of nuclear materials, strengthen its export controls over dual-use materials and technologies and convert the fortified Fordow facility into an international physics research center.

According to the widely respected Institute for Science and International Security, the limits imposed on Iran’s heavy-water reactor and uranium-enrichment program will lengthen it’s time to “break out” and build a nuclear weapon to about fifteen months. To address the risk that Iran could construct covert enrichment facilities, as it has down twice before, Iran has agreed to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) greatly increased inspection powers over the full range of its nuclear facilities, as well as centrifuge component production facilities and the nuclear program’s supply chain. An additional safeguard against sneakout is that Iran has agreed to import dual-use materials and technology only through a dedicated, internationally monitored procurement channel. The combination of these inspection and monitoring measures will greatly complicate Iran’s ability to divert uranium or centrifuges to a covert facility or build such a facility using foreign assistance. While the efficacy of these provisions strongly depends on details that have not yet been finalized, they provide a solid foundation for addressing the risks of breakout and sneakout.

The framework, however, lacks any provisions to prevent Iranian nuclear technology and expertise, which is now quite considerable, from fueling proliferation in other countries. History is unfortunately replete with examples of nuclear leakout. Renegade centrifuge experts from Germany helped Libya, Pakistan and Iraq develop their uranium-enrichment programs. Government scientists, like the Pakistani metallurgist AQ Khan, have used their networks to sell enrichment technology to foreign governments seeking nuclear weapons. Indeed, Iran was one of Khan’s first customers. Individuals and companies across the world have also engaged in illicit nuclear trade, all too often turning a blind eye to the intended use of their wares in the pursuit of profit. Furthermore, countries such as the Soviet Union, France, China and North Korea have engaged in dedicated efforts to help other countries develop nuclear weapons.