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"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Julia Masterson

IAEA Report Notes Progress on Investigation

The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s safeguards confirmed that inspectors have already accessed one undeclared site in Iran and will visit a second location in September. This is an unsurprising, but positive, confirmation that Iran and the IAEA are following through on the terms of an Aug. 26 agreement to finally allow agency inspectors access to follow up on evidence of possible undeclared nuclear materials and activities. While it is unfortunate that the dispute over access between the IAEA and Iran took nine months to resolve and that the IAEA’s Board...

UN Experts See North Korean Nuclear Gains


September 2020
By Julia Masterson

North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons continues despite aggressive sanctions, according to an article by CNN on Aug. 4 of an unreleased report by a UN panel of experts. The new report says Pyongyang has likely developed the capability to manufacture miniaturized nuclear devices that can fit on its ballistic missiles.

North Korea tests its Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 28, 2017. A UN panel of experts recently assessed that the nation has probably succeeded in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads enough to fit on long-range missiles. (Photo: Getty Images)The UN report also details one member state’s independent conclusion that North Korea “may seek to further develop miniturisation in order to allow incorporation of technological improvements such as penetration aid packages or, potentially, to develop multiple warhead systems.”

Mastery of warhead miniaturization suggests that North Korea could ostensibly deliver a nuclear weapon via its ballistic missiles, including its long-range systems. Although North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since September 2017, the experts who contributed to the report assessed that the country’s six nuclear tests likely aided its development of miniaturized warheads.

As they continue to advance, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities increasingly threaten the security of its neighbors in the region. Japan’s 2020 Defense White Paper, released in July, acknowledged for the first time that North Korea possesses the ability to attack Japan. The Japanese Defense Ministry noted that, in addition to miniaturized warheads, “North Korea is presumed to have acquired atmospheric re-entry technologies required for the operationalization of Nodong and Scud-ER ballistic missiles, within whose range Japan lies.” According to the ministry, this suggests North Korea “already has the ability to attack Japan with nuclear weapons fitted to these ballistic missiles.”

Pyongyang slammed Japan’s white paper as “a stream of nonsense on our possession of nuclear weapons,” according to a July 15 foreign ministry statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touted the country’s nuclear weapons program during a July 28 speech. “Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word ‘war’ would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” he said. In May, Kim presided over a meeting of North Korean military officials who pledged to implement “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

North Korea is also accelerating its fissile material production, the UN panel report finds. According to an Aug. 4 analysis by Oliver Hotham at NK News, who saw the report, the enrichment facility at Yongbyon is operational, and an experimental light-water reactor located within the complex is under construction. Once completed, that reactor may be used to produce plutonium. As of now, North Korea’s five megawatt-electric gas-graphite reactor is the country’s only known source of plutonium, but that reactor is believed to have remained inoperative since 2018.

The report also examines the topic of unconfirmed enrichment activities at Kangson, which has been identified by several open-source analysts but has never been addressed by Pyongyang. Ankit Panda, a researcher with access to the classified report, wrote in NK Pro on Aug. 7 that the report says the states that have inquired about Kangson “do not have information to confirm that the facility in Kangson is for the uranium enrichment.” In 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the facility at Kangson is “not inconsistent” with an enrichment plant, and also said that the “timeline of [the facility’s] construction is not inconsistent” with North Korea’s reported uranium-enrichment program.

On a broad scale, the UN panel report exemplifies the extent to which a global sanctions campaign has failed to stifle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs, in particular its development of nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles. The report identifies several instances in which North Korean entities may have succeeded in circumventing UN sanctions to engage with sanctioned groups in China and Russia.

In one case, the report details Pyongyang’s Second Economic Committee’s attention to undertaking sustained “efforts to procure dual-use ‘choke point items’ from foreign sources.” Panda explained that these dual-use items could include the large, liquid-propellant engines in Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, for example. Because the report has not been made public, it remains unclear whether the referenced foreign groups transferred actual materials or equipment, or whether the transfer to North Korea consisted of technical know-how only. According to Panda, the UN report cites concerns about North Korean technicians that may be involved in collaborative international scientific and technical research.

The United States has not openly acknowledged the report. But U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said on Aug. 5 that North Korea’s nuclear program continues to jeopardize security in the region. It is “something we keep a very close eye on,” she said.

 

Sanctions have failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear warheads for missiles.

North Korea Sets Conditions for Diplomacy


September 2020
By Julia Masterson

Despite intermittent efforts by the Trump administration to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program, talks between the two countries remain stalled, and there is little indication they will resume before the U.S. presidential election in November. Addressing a potential summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before the election, Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said on July 4 that the United States “is mistaken if it thinks things like negotiations would still work on us.”

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (left) and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea recently said North Korean denuclearization "is not possible at this point in time." (Photo: Getty Images)“We do not feel any need to sit face to face with the U.S., as it does not consider the…dialogue as nothing more than a tool for grappling [with] its political crisis,” she added.

But the prospect for future diplomacy between the United States and North Korea is not entirely moot. In a July 10 statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, said that the previous “theme” of North Korean-U.S. negotiations, “‘denuclearization measures versus lifting of sanctions,’ should change into a formula of ‘withdrawal of hostility versus resumption’” of negotiations.

Kim Yo Jong is the sister of North Korea’s leader.

“I am of the view that the…summit talks are not needed this year and beyond,” she said, adding that her position “does not necessarily mean the denuclearization is not possible. What we mean…is that it is not possible at this point in time.”

“I remind the U.S. that denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can only be realized when there are major changes made on either side, i.e., the irreversible, simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with our actions,” she noted.

She did not elaborate on North Korea’s negotiating position, but said that Pyongyang’s previous offer to permanently dismantle the nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex in exchange for partial sanctions relief is no longer on the table. That offer was withdrawn after the Trump administration demanded an additional concession by North Korea during the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, in February 2019. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Kim Yo Jong’s statement is consistent with earlier sentiments by officials in Pyongyang suggesting that the United States must reform its approach to North Korea if it seeks a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis at hand. The Trump administration has engaged in negotiations with North Korea on an intermittent basis since 2018, but Washington continues to demand that North Korea fully denuclearize before yielding any benefit of doing so. Washington also continues to hold the threat of mounting sanctions over Pyongyang in an attempt to economically force North Korea’s denuclearization. To this, Kim Yo Jong said in her statement, “we are fully capable of living under sanctions, so there is no reason for us to be driven” by the United States.

Rather, she said that U.S. sanctions have little influence over North Korea’s decision-making. She stated that, in her reference to “major changes from the other side,” she did “not mean the lifting of sanctions.”

Kim Yo Jong’s address clearly outlines North Korea’s conditions for renewed diplomacy with the United States, but it remains unclear whether negotiations will resume ahead of the election. The Trump administration has not commented on her statement, but during a July 10 visit to Japan, Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, emphasized the “continued U.S. readiness to engage in dialogue” with North Korea.

A key North Korean official told the Trump administration to adjust its goals for diplomacy to succeed.

Saudi Arabia May Be Building Uranium Facility


September 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

With Chinese support, Saudi Arabia may be constructing a new uranium processing facility to enhance its pursuit of nuclear technology, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 4. Citing unnamed Western officials, the report said that a facility near Al Ula is intended to be used to produce concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, from mined ore. The reported development comes as U.S. and Saudi officials have been unable to agree on the terms of a nuclear cooperation agreement to support Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the 2016 G20 Summit in China. Recent reports have suggested that China is backing the construction of a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The Saudi Energy Ministry reportedly has categorically denied the existence of such a facility at that location. If confirmed, such a facility could signify Saudi progress toward constructing an indigenous uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a key step in refining uranium for civilian or military uses.

Saudi officials have stated their intent to pursue a uranium enrichment program as part of the country’s plan to build 16 civilian power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, October 2019.) Companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two of the planned 16 nuclear power reactors, but Riyadh has yet to select a vendor.

Israel also raised concerns about the new facility to the Trump administration, Axios reported on Aug. 19. There are “worrying signs about what the Saudis might be doing, but it is not exactly clear to us what's going on in this facility," said one senior Israeli intelligence official.

Saudi Arabia is not believed to have any uranium enrichment program as of now, but mastery of the enrichment process could embolden Riyadh to enrich to weapons-grade levels.

Revelation of the facility and Saudi Arabia’s possible lack of transparency has spurred renewed concern from members of Congress about how the Trump administration might address Saudi nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Arms Control Today that “President Donald Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia has threatened our national security interests and undermined our values,” referring in particular to the administration’s lack of response to the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“The return on this investment is now clear: a purported ally turning to China to accelerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Kaine.

Meanwhile, three Democratic members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Ami Bera (Calif.), and Ted Deutch (Fla.)—sent a letter on Aug. 17 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information and a briefing on the recent revelation as it “raises further questions about whether Riyadh’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a bipartisan group of senators in writing an Aug. 19 letter to Trump also demanding further information and a briefing on the status of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations and the state of U.S. discussions with China on Riyadh’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts coupled with a growing ballistic missile program poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.

Concerns about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions have been exacerbated by rhetoric from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who in 2018 pledged that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” (See ACT, June 2018.)

A U.S. intelligence analysis circulated in early August detailed a second newly constructed structure near Riyadh, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. Analysts speculated it could be an undeclared nuclear facility, but the confidence with which that assessment was made is not clear.

Reports of the existence of the site near Al Ula allege that Saudi Arabia was aided by China in its construction. Asked about China’s role in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Aug. 7 that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” who “maintain normal energy cooperation.” He did not address the suspected yellowcake facility, but said that Beijing “will continue [its] strict fulfillment of international obligations in nonproliferation and pursue cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy with other countries.” China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear collaboration dates back to 2012, when the two countries signed their first cooperative pact.

Saudi Arabia has also received help from China on the significant expansion of its domestic ballistic missile program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Currently, Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is complemented by an outdated small quantities protocol, reflective of the negligible size of its nuclear program at the time its safeguards agreement was concluded in 2005. Under that protocol, Saudi Arabia is not obligated to invite IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities, including any potential yellowcake production facilities.

IAEA officials have been pushing for Saudi Arabia to transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement for several years as Riyadh has moved to expand its civilian nuclear program. Following the revelation of the possible yellowcake facility, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, urged Riyadh on Aug. 8 to strengthen its agreement with the agency and invite inspectors in.

U.S.-Saudi negotiations on the nuclear energy cooperation deal, called a 123 agreement after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, have stalled over the past year.

An April report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that U.S.-Saudi talks have faced two unresolved issues. First, Riyadh has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its limited safeguards agreement, which would provide the IAEA with a broader range of information on its nuclear-related activities. Second, Saudi Arabia has so far declined to promise to forgo nuclear fuel production activities, a step that is called a nonproliferation “gold standard.” (See ACT, June 2020.)

A 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can include a gold standard commitment in which a cooperating country agrees to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, as those activities can be used to produce weapons-grade material. By forgoing those, countries adhering to a gold standard signal their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

In September 2019, Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly sent a letter to Saudi officials stating that the United States would require Saudi Arabia to adopt an additional protocol with the IAEA and commit to the gold standard. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Kaine questioned U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during his July 21 hearing for the top arms control job at the State Department on whether he would maintain that requirement. The State Department leads negotiations on 123 agreements, which, once complete, require congressional approval.

“You have my commitment that I will pursue the so-called gold standard in these 123 agreements,” said Billingslea. “I believe [it] should also be pursued with the Saudis.” He did not address the additional protocol.

 

Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia could be starting a uranium enrichment program.

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality


September 2020

The United Arab Emirates on Aug. 1 became the first Arab country to operate a nuclear power plant when officials announced that the first of four planned reactors at the Barakah nuclear power station achieved criticality by completing a sustained fission reaction. According to the UAE leadership, once all four units at the Barakah plant are operational, nuclear power will account for a quarter of the country’s electricity and reduce the nation’s reliance on oil and gas.

The UAE’s nuclear progress has highlighted concerns about the security implications of an uptick in nuclear programs in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is in the early stages of developing its nuclear program, and Iran has a demonstrated uranium-enrichment capability. Israel has an assumed arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But according to Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation with expertise in the Persian Gulf region, the UAE nuclear program does not pose a proliferation risk. Abu Dhabi has taken deliberate measures to publicly signal the strictly peaceful application of its nuclear program, Esfandiary told Arms Control Today. These measures include the country’s decision to forgo uranium enrichment, among other things. The UAE is also a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has had an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in place since 2009. (See ACT, October 2019.)—JULIA MASTERSON

UAE Reactor Reaches Criticality

Security Council Rejects Iran Arms Embargo Extension

Security Council Rejects Iran Arms Embargo Extension The Security Council decisively rejected a U.S. resolution to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October according to the terms of Resolution 2231, which endorses the 2015 nuclear deal and modifies UN sanctions on Iran. Despite the defeat, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said Aug. 14 that the Trump administration intends to try and use a mechanism in Resolution 2231 that allows for participants of the nuclear deal to snapback UN sanctions on Iran in order to prevent expiry of the arms embargo. Craft said the...

The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Volume 12, Issue 6, August 4, 2020

Over the past year, Iran has taken several troubling steps to breach the limits that were imposed on its nuclear program by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Iran’s violations of the accord appear to be carefully calibrated to create leverage in response to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the accord and reimposition of sanctions, Iran’s actions have rekindled the debate about how quickly Iran could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (left), government spokesman Ali Rabiei (center), and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (right) give a joint press conference in Tehran as Iran prepares to  begin enriching uranium beyond a 3.67 percent cap set by the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, July 7, 2019. (Photo: HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP via Getty Images)Estimates about the length of time it might take for Tehran to breakout have become synonymous with assessing the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. During negotiations on the JCPOA, the breakout time established by the nuclear restrictions imposed by the deal became a key metric by which policymakers, particularly members of Congress, judged the value of the accord. Supporters of the JCPOA highlighted the 12-month breakout achieved by the deal as a measure of success in rolling back the country’s nuclear program and creating a buffer that would give the international community time to respond to any Iranian move to try to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the nuclear deal decried the accord for ‘only’ achieving a 12- month breakout for the first decade of the accord.

The attractiveness of a breakout estimation from a policy-making perspective is clear—it is a quantitative assessment of a country’s capacity to produce fissile material for a bomb that establishes a time frame for intervention.

While breakout estimates can appear to be a quick and easy metric for assessing a proliferation threat, they can also be misleading and oversimplify the complex technical weaponization process and the political factors that influence the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Breakout is often discussed absent a shared understanding of what the term constitutes and the assumptions that go into the calculation. More importantly, breakout is a measure of technical capacity and capability, not intent. Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons—or not—will be based on an array of political considerations, Tehran’s threat perceptions, and its leaders’ cost-benefit calculations.

Establishing limitations and restrictions that extend a country’s breakout time are important for mitigating proliferation risk. However, pairing the limits established by the JCPOA with a strategy for addressing the factors that impact Tehran's decision-making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

What is Breakout?

“Breakout” commonly refers to the amount of time it would take for a country to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. Every country has a breakout timeline.

While the amount of fissile material used in nuclear weapons varies considerably, breakout is often estimated using what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refers to as a “significant quantity” of weapons useable material: 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or four kilograms of separated plutonium-239. States that already possess nuclear weapons have developed warheads using less fissile material, but Iran—which has never built or tested a nuclear device—would likely require the IAEA’s estimated significant quantity of fissile material, or more, to account for wastage in the process of manufacturing the weapon.

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In discussions about the Iranian nuclear program, breakout is most frequently used to describe the country’s capacity to produce enough HEU for one weapon using gas centrifuges. Iran has an established uranium enrichment and centrifuge development program that could be more readily reconfigured to produce HEU for nuclear weapons than the plutonium route.

Even before negotiations on the JCPOA, Iran lacked a separation facility to remove plutonium-239 from spent reactor fuel. Additionally, its unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak, which may have initially been designed as a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons, was years away from completion. Currently, provisions of the deal requiring Iran to modify the Arak reactor to a design that would produce less than a kilogram of weapons-usable plutonium yearly (and even that will be shipped out), and forgo reprocessing for 15 years, serve as a further bulwark against a plutonium route to the bomb.

In determining Iran’s breakout time using its uranium enrichment program, several factors impact the calculation, including the types of centrifuges used for enrichment, the efficiency and configuration of those machines, and the size and enrichment levels of Iran’s existing stockpile of uranium.

Often, breakout estimates are based on worst-case scenarios and they can vary significantly. Variances in breakout estimation can depend on the assumptions made about factors that are not established publicly by IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program or other sources of data. For instance, the efficiency of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuge, known as its “separative work unit (SWU)” capacity, is fairly well established by more than a decade of IAEA reports. The New York Times also reported in 2015 that the United States has a cascade of IR-1 centrifuges that it uses to test its performance assumptions in calculating breakout. Iran’s advanced centrifuges, however, do not have the same public operational history and documentation, making estimates about their efficiency more imprecise. 

Longer or shorter breakout estimates may also be attributed to differing judgments on how quickly Iran could reconfigure its centrifuges to enrich to higher levels, assumptions about how many/few machines will break during that process, the rate at which Iran could install additional centrifuges, and how much material Iran would need to produce to account for wastage in the process.

Fluctuations in Iran’s Breakout

Before implementation of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) and Iran, Tehran’s breakout time was assessed at about 2-3 months. At that time, Iran had produced and stockpiled about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium gas—nearly enough that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, could be used to produce enough HEU for a bomb. This stockpile had a significant impact on the breakout estimate because enriching to the 20 percent uranium-235 level constitutes about 90 percent of the effort required to produce 90 percent enriched uranium and would jump-start any weapons effort. At that time, Iran was also operating more than 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges and had produced and stockpiled more than enough uranium gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, would produce enough HEU for a half dozen nuclear weapons.

As a result of the interim Joint Plan of Action, Iran ceased enriching to 20 percent and diluted or converted its stockpile of that material, increasing the breakout time. The JCPOA further limited Iran to 3.67 percent enrichment for 15 years. Additional limitations put in place by the JCPOA included restricting the stockpile size to the equivalent of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235—not nearly enough for one nuclear weapon—for 15 years and limiting enrichment output to only 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges for 10 years.

In combination, these restrictions on the uranium enrichment program extended the breakout time to about 12 months for the first decade of the agreement, according to the Obama administration. Then-Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats presented a similar assessment in Jan. 2019 when Iran was fully implementing the deal.

Since Iran began taking steps in May 2019 to breach limits set by the accord, the breakout time has slowly decreased. As of June 2020, Iran is now enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent uranium-235 using more than 6,100 IR-1 centrifuges and several hundred advanced machines. Iran has also exceeded the stockpile limit for enriched uranium and possesses 1,088 kilograms of uranium enriched between 2-4.5 percent uranium-235—more than enough to produce a significant quantity of HEU if enriched to weapons-grade.

Given the uncertainties about advanced centrifuge machine performance and variances of enrichment levels within the stockpile, breakout estimates as of the June 2020 IAEA report range from three to six months. If Iran continues to install additional centrifuges or begins enriching to higher levels, the breakout time could decrease further.

Iranian officials have made clear, however, that these steps are not a dash to a bomb and that Tehran will return to compliance with the accord if the other parties to the deal meet their obligations, namely on sanctions relief. Iranian officials have notified the IAEA in advance of its actions to breach the deal and the agency has monitored and reported on the violations. The careful calibration of these transparent steps to gradually decrease breakout and the reversibility of Iran’s actions support the claim by Tehran that this is about pressing the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief. Furthermore, the 2020 State Department report on compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements assessed that Iran is not engaged in activities relevant to nuclear weapons development nor has Tehran made the decision to do so.

This demonstrates one of the limitations of the breakout calculation: Iran’s breakout has significantly decreased over the past year, but the country’s political calculus does not appear to have shifted in favor of building a bomb. As such, despite the shorter breakout window, there is still time to influence Iran’s decision making.

What Else Goes into Making a Bomb?

While breakout typically refers to the time necessary to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, the calculation is often conflated or confused with the total time necessary to build an actual nuclear weapon.

Although the production of fissile material is arguably the most resource-intensive and difficult step in building a bomb, there are several additional technical hurdles, including designing and constructing an explosive device and integrating it into a delivery system (most likely a ballistic missile). When breakout is misconstrued as the time to build a weapon or reference to these steps is omitted, it can artificially inflate the immediacy of the proliferation risk.

To build a bomb, there are several additional time-consuming steps following the production of fissile material. After producing enough HEU gas for a bomb, Iran would need to convert the material into powder form, fabricate the metallic core of the weapon from the powder, assemble other weapons components that had been previously developed or acquired on an independent track, and integrate the weapons package into a delivery vehicle. This process could be more easily hidden and progress would be more difficult to quantify, but there would still be a period of time for intervention.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 9, 2016. (Photo:SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)It is likely that if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade material, the country would be able to build a nuclear weapon. In an unclassified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Iran had a nuclear weapons capability—namely, the country developed the technical competencies to build a bomb—but had not made the political decision to follow through.

James Clapper, director for national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, confirmed during testimony in Feb. 2016 that that assessment still held, noting that U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran faces any “insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon,” but that there was no indication that Tehran intended to pursue nuclear weapons at this time.

Past verification activities and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) further support the assessment Iran has retained the technical know-how to adapt a stockpile of HEU for use in a nuclear explosive device. A 2011 IAEA report annex on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program referenced Iran’s attempts to convert HEU compounds into metal and to fabricate HEU metal components into a size suitable for a nuclear weapon. That same report confirms that Iran engaged in the development of a detonator, which can be used to ignite the high explosives that surround a weapon’s fissile core.

Beyond constructing a bomb, states developing nuclear weapons have typically conducted multiple, large-scale nuclear test explosions to perfect their warhead designs, particularly the smaller, lighter, and more efficient designs needed for missiles. Iran has not conducted a nuclear test and any attempt to do so would very likely be detected by existing U.S. national means of intelligence and the International Monitoring System established to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

If Iran chose not to test, Tehran would be staking everything on the perfect performance of one untested system. It is highly improbable that Iran would plan to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by building only one nuclear weapon. Calculating timelines based on a one-device scenario, therefore, compounds the misimpression already left by using a breakout definition that falls short of actually building a weapon.

However, if Tehran were to choose to increase the odds of success by planning to build multiple weapons, it would increase the need for fissile material, thus lengthening the breakout timelines and increasing the chances of international detection and blocking actions. The likelihood of detection is further increased by the more intrusive monitoring and verification mechanism put in place by the JCPOA.

Even if Iran were willing to tolerate the large uncertainties deriving from an untested nuclear weapons design, integrating the warhead with a delivery system could add additional uncertainties and further increase the timeframe. Launching a nuclear weapon using a ballistic missile—which the U.S. intelligence community assessed was Iran’s most likely delivery system—requires miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to ensure the size and weight are compatible with the missile’s capabilities. The annex to the 2011 IAEA report indicated that Iran was studying how to pair a warhead with its Shahab ballistic missiles.

Estimates of how quickly Iran could complete a bomb after producing the fissile material differ. The United States does not provide official estimates, but an annual report from the State Department released in June 2020 noted that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.” Former U.S. officials have said the weaponization process could take about a year. Leaked reports of a threat assessment provided to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in June 2020 concluded that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in six months, but it would take the country about two years to build a bomb if Tehran decided to do so.

The difference between the breakout timeline and the total estimated time to build a nuclear bomb highlights a limitation of focusing too narrowly on breakout as the window for intervention. For one, breakout creates the perception that a state must be stopped before producing a significant quantity of HEU or plutonium, which may be used as a justification for a military strike. Military action, however, will only set back Iran’s nuclear program and may end up spurring Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future strikes.

Furthermore, breakout assesses the time it would take for Iran to concentrate its nuclear capacity to produce enough nuclear material for one weapon. A single nuclear bomb—particularly given that Iran has not tested a nuclear device in the past to verify its design—has limited security value. It is not an effective deterrent and it is unlikely that Iran would want to face the consequences of breakout—increased international pressure and possible military action—for one nuclear weapon based on an untested design.

The Political Factors Related to Breakout

Overreliance on using breakout estimates also creates the impression that Iran will inevitably pursue nuclear weapons at some point and that there is a technical solution to block what is ultimately a political decision shaped by a country’s threat perception. However, given that the U.S. intelligence community has already assessed that Iran has developed a nuclear weapons capability, restrictions can increase the time it would take to build a bomb, but they cannot undo that knowledge. Ultimately, if Tehran decides to build a bomb, the country has the technical competencies to do so.

But, as Clapper testified in 2012, “we judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.” To that end, pairing a return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal by the United States and Iran with a strategy for active engagement on regional security issues and investment in Iran’s economic development would increase the time it would take to build a bomb while increasing the benefits of compliance. This approach of establishing technical barriers and addressing the factors that impact Tehran’s decision making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

Conclusions

Limiting and restricting Iran’s breakout timeline is a critical component and benefit of the JCPOA. However, policymakers must focus not only on the technical barriers and the robust inspection regime necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons but also on a strategy to address the political factors that influence Iranian decision making on security issues.

A key part of any such strategy involves a mutual return to the JCPOA by the United States and Iran. Doing so would be an important first step toward stabilizing the current situation and preventing a new nuclear crisis in the region. A return to full compliance with the nuclear deal would provide a platform for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address the country’s nuclear program and create space to engage with Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional dynamics and the country’s ballistic missile program.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, with JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant

Description: 

Iran’s recent steps to breach the limits imposed on its nuclear program under the JCPOA have rekindled the debate about how quickly its nuclear program could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

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