Creepin': Here's How Iran Will Really Build the Bomb

"The real danger is that the mullahs will put off a breakout attempt in the next decade or so, while creeping out of their obligations."

In assessing whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the P5+1 world powers and Iran last week is an adequate safeguard against the latter’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Obama administration officials and arms control wonks typically discuss two heavily stylized breakout scenarios.

In an overt breakout, Iran brushes aside nuclear inspectors and begins openly racing to enrich weapons grade uranium (WGU) using its two declared enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow. The JCPOA ostensibly blocks this path by limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to 5,060 and capping the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) it can keep on hand to use as feedstock at 300 kilograms. This supposedly lengthens its breakout time—how quickly it can produce sufficient fissile material for one atomic bomb should it make a rush to build one—from two or three months at present to at least a year, giving the international community more time to mobilize a response to the breakout.

In a covert breakout, or sneakout, Iran builds parallel infrastructure in secret to produce the fissile material for a bomb. The JCPOA ostensibly blocks this path with an inspections regime designed to detect the diversion of fissile material, the construction of illicit centrifuges, off-the-books uranium mining, and so forth.

Though much ink has been spilled about whether these two “paths” to the bomb have been blocked, both presuppose a decision by Iran to sacrifice its reconciliation with the world in the next ten to fifteen years for the immediate gratification of building a weapon (the purpose of a covert breakout is less to avoid detection before crossing the finish line than to make the process less vulnerable to decisive disruption).

Such an abrupt change of heart by the Iranian regime is certainly possible, but more worrisome is the prospect that Iran’s nuclear policy after the agreement goes into effect will be much the same as it was before—comply with the letter and spirit of its obligations only to the degree necessary to ward off unacceptably costly consequences. This will likely take the form of what I call nuclear creepout—activities, both open and covert, legal and illicit, designed to negate JCPOA restrictions without triggering costly multilateral reprisals.

It is important to bear in mind that the JCPOA bars signatories from re-imposing any sanctions or their equivalents on Iran, except by way of a United Nations Security Council resolution restoring sanctions. “That means there will be no punishments for anything less than a capital crime,” explains Robert Satloff. The language demanded by Iranian negotiators, and accepted by the Obama administration, makes small-scale cheating virtually unpunishable.

Moreover, the specific terms of the JCPOA appear to have been designed to give the Iranians wide latitude to interpret their own obligations. Two, in particular, should raise eyebrows.

The LEU Cap

About 1,000 kilograms of LEU is supposedly needed to produce, through further enrichment, enough weapons grade uranium for a nuclear explosive device (let’s assume for sake of argument that that the Obama administration’s erroneous math is correct). This is what inspectors call a “significant quantity” (SQ). The JCPOA’s requirement that Iran “keep its uranium stockpile under 300 kilograms” would force it to enrich a substantial quantity of natural uranium all the way up to weapons grade, thereby lengthening the process of producing a SQ by several months.

But what exactly happens to LEU produced by Iranian centrifuges in excess of the 300-kilogram limit? The JCPOA appendix says it “will be down blended to natural uranium level or be sold on the international market and delivered to the international buyer.” Maintenance of the 300 kilogram limit relies upon Iran continually and punctually reprocessing or transferring material it already possesses.

What happens if Iran’s handling of all this is less than perfect? Suppose 100 kilograms or so of LEU in the process of being down-blended or delivered to an “international buyer” of Iran’s choosing routinely remains recoverable at any one time because of apparent inefficiencies and bottlenecks. Would the international community be willing to cancel the JCPOA over this infraction? Almost certainly not.

What if this number swelled periodically to 150 or 200 kilograms every so often because of some special complication or another, like a breakout of plant machinery or truck drivers’ strike?  Probably not. Since an overt breakout attempt would likely commence at one of these peaks in LEU availability (and when smaller amounts of medium enriched uranium have yet to be converted or transferred), we can knock a month or so off its breakout time.

The Centrifuges Cap