NY Times Op Ed: The Iran Deal's Fatal Flaw

JUNE 23, 2015

President Obama's main pitch for the pending nuclear deal with Iran is that it would extend the “breakout time” necessary for Iran to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. In a recent interview with NPR, he said that the current breakout time is “about two to three months by our intelligence estimates.” By contrast, he claimed, the pending deal would shrink Iran’s nuclear program, so that if Iran later “decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we’d have over a year to respond.”

Unfortunately, that claim is false, as can be demonstrated with basic science and math. By my calculations, Iran’s actual breakout time under the deal would be approximately three months — not over a year. Thus, the deal would be unlikely to improve the world’s ability to react to a sudden effort by Iran to build a bomb.

Breakout time is determined by three primary factors: the number and type of centrifuges; the enrichment of the starting material; and the amount of enriched uranium required for a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama seems to make rosy assumptions about all three.

Most important, in the event of an overt attempt by Iran to build a bomb, Mr. Obama’s argument assumes that Iran would employ only the 5,060 centrifuges that the deal would allow for uranium enrichment, not the roughly 14,000 additional centrifuges that Iran would be permitted to keep mainly for spare parts. Such an assumption is laughable. In a real-world breakout, Iran would race, not crawl, to the bomb.

These additional centrifuges would need to be connected, brought up to speed and equilibrated with the already operating ones. But at that point, Iran’s enrichment capacity could exceed three times what Mr. Obama assumes. This flaw could be addressed by amending the deal to require Iran to destroy or export the additional centrifuges, but Iran refuses.

Second, since the deal would permit Iran to keep only a small amount of enriched uranium in the gaseous form used in centrifuges, Mr. Obama assumes that a dash for the bomb would start mainly from unenriched uranium, thereby lengthening the breakout time. But the deal would appear to also permit Iran to keep large amounts of enriched uranium in solid form (as opposed to gas), which could be reconverted to gas within weeks, thus providing a substantial head-start to producing weapons-grade uranium.

Third, Mr. Obama’s argument assumes that Iran would require 59 pounds of weapons-grade uranium to make an atomic bomb. In reality, nuclear weapons can be made from much smaller amounts of uranium (as experts assume North Korea does in its rudimentary arsenal). A 1995 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that even a “low technical capability” nuclear weapon could produce an explosion with a force approaching that of the Hiroshima bomb — using just 29 pounds of weapons-grade uranium.

Based on such realistic assumptions, Iran’s breakout time under the pending deal actually would be around three months, while its current breakout time is a little under two months. Thus, the deal would increase the breakout time by just over a month, too little to matter. Mr. Obama’s main argument for the agreement — extending Iran’s breakout time — turns out to be effectively worthless.

By contrast, Iran stands to gain enormously. The deal would lift nuclear-related sanctions, thereby infusing Iran’s economy with billions of dollars annually. In addition, the deal could release frozen Iranian assets, reportedly giving Tehran a $30 billion to $50 billion “signing bonus.”

Showering Iran with rewards for making illusory concessions poses grave risks. It would entrench the ruling mullahs, who could claim credit for Iran’s economic resurgence. The extra resources would also enable Iran to amplify the havoc it is fostering in neighboring countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Worst of all, lifting sanctions would facilitate a huge expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, says that he wants 190,000 centrifuges eventually, or 10 times the current amount, as would appear to be permissible under the deal after just 10 years. Such enormous enrichment capacity would shrink the breakout time to mere days, so that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb before we even knew it was trying — thus eliminating any hope of our taking preventive action.

Nothing in the pending deal is worth such risks. Unless President Obama can extract significantly greater concessions at the negotiating table, Congress should refuse to lift sanctions, thereby blocking implementation of a deal that would provide Iran billions of dollars to pursue nuclear weapons and regional hegemony.

Alan J. Kuperman is an associate professor and the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin.