Iran Nuclear Policy Brief: Breaking Down Iran's Breakout Capacity

By Greg Thielmann
October 2014

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As efforts intensify to bring the Iran nuclear negotiations to a successful conclusion by November 24, the issue of breakout continues to occupy center stage. Setting limits on Iran’s nuclear program to dissuade the leaders in Tehran from breaking out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and possibly building nuclear weapons is a central objective of the P5+1 powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

Consideration of the effect of agreed limits on the time it would take Iran to build nuclear weapons is, therefore, a necessary step in formulating the P5+1 negotiating position, but is not sufficient for navigating the appropriate course toward a comprehensive agreement.

Relying on the narrow definition of the term “breakout”—obtaining enough weapons-grade uranium gas for one bomb—does not fully capture the path that would have to be traveled. It is also necessary to consider “effective breakout”—the time needed to build a credible nuclear arsenal—in order to ensure that the proper balance between verification and limitations can be achieved.