"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
Kelsey Davenport

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



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.


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


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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IAEA Board Presses Iran

July/August 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors urged Iran in June to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into possible undeclared nuclear materials and sites in the country. The board resolution prompted Iranian lawmakers to call for Tehran to suspend a voluntary monitoring arrangement with the agency that gives inspectors greater access to information and locations in Iran.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi (left), delivers his opening statement to the Board of Governors on June 15. The board convened with reduced attendance to reduce risks from the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The board passed the resolution June 20 by a vote of 25–2, with seven countries abstaining. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom introduced the resolution after IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on June 15 that Iran’s continued refusal to cooperate with IAEA requests for information about certain nuclear activities and for access to two locations over the past year was “adversely affecting the agency’s ability” to provide “credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.”

The resolution calls on Iran to “satisfy the agency’s requests without further delay” and to provide “prompt access to the locations specified.”

Grossi raised concerns with the board about Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation during its previous quarterly meeting in March. In reports issued March 3 and June 5, he said that the IAEA first requested clarifications from Tehran regarding possible undeclared nuclear material and activities at three locations in Iran in January 2019. After a year of attempting to get information from Tehran about the locations in question, the IAEA requested access to two of the sites in January 2020 to take environmental samples. Tehran has refused to allow inspectors to visit the site.

The two reports indicate that the activities and materials in question predate 2003, when the IAEA and U.S. intelligence community assessed that Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program. There is no indication in the report that the IAEA has evidence that any of the activities under investigation are currently ongoing.

Before the vote on the resolution, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran has “nothing to hide” and that addressing the IAEA’s investigation is possible but a resolution “will ruin it.” After the vote, he blasted the three European countries for their “total impotence in resisting U.S. bullying.”

Ahead of the vote, Jackie Wolcott, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, described the resolution as a “balanced and fair reaction to Iran’s alarming refusal to comply with its legal obligations” and urged states to support it. Wolcott said that “ignoring such critical safeguards-related questions in Iran would undermine the implementation of safeguards everywhere.”

According to the June 5 report, the IAEA is seeking information about a uranium metal disc that Iran did not declare to the agency; possible fuel-cycle-related activities, including uranium processing and conversion; and possible storage of nuclear material at a location where explosive testing took place in 2003.

Iran is legally obligated to declare locations where nuclear material is present and respond to IAEA requests for information and access under its safeguards agreement, which is required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has also permitted additional agency monitoring as part of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

These measures, laid out in the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement, allow for shorter-notice inspections and expand the use of environmental sampling. Unlike a safeguards agreement, an additional protocol is not required by the NPT, but 136 states are currently implementing additional protocols.

According to the June 5 report, Iran told the IAEA in a June 2 letter that it is “willing to satisfy the agency’s requests” but certain “legal ambiguities” must be addressed first.

The IAEA responded to Iran on June 4, saying that the agency’s requests were “strictly in accordance” with Iran’s safeguards agreement and the additional protocol.

In a statement signed by 240 of the 290 members of Iran’s parliament, lawmakers called the resolution “excessive” and demanded that the government “stop voluntary implementation of additional protocol and change inspections.” The statement urged the IAEA to act “independently and professionally, not under the influence of political and hostile pressures of some members” of the board.

Russia and China opposed the resolution, citing concerns about the origin of the evidence behind the IAEA request and the negative repercussions that it could have on the JCPOA.

Wang Qun, Chinese ambassador to the IAEA, said on June 18 that the legal basis of the IAEA request is questionable and that the agency acted too hastily in submitting a report on Iran’s refusal to cooperate to the IAEA board.

Wang said if a resolution were adopted, it could “be the basis for further actions in the [UN] Security Council, leading to the ultimate termination of the JCPOA,” and would damage the global nonproliferation regime.

In 2006, after Iran had failed to comply with several IAEA resolutions urging Tehran to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into illicit nuclear activities, the board referred Iran to the UN Security Council. This led to a series of council resolutions requiring Tehran to halt its nuclear activities and sanctioning Iran for failing to do so. That investigation was resolved in 2015 as part of the JCPOA, and the Security Council sanctions were also modified by the nuclear deal.

Wang blamed the United States, saying the root causes of the issue “lie in the unilateral and bullying practices” of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign.

Although Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to the IAEA, said on June 19 that Iran and the IAEA need to resolve the investigation “without delay,” Moscow views the resolution as “counterproductive.”

Brian Hook, U.S. special envoy for Iran, called the Russian and Chinese votes against the resolution “irresponsible” and said on a June 19 press call that “Russia and China tried to shield Iran from scrutiny.”

Ahead of the vote, Ulyanov also raised concerns about information provided to the IAEA from third-party states, saying that there are “no clear rules in the agency on the use of information received from third countries” and it is “high time” this issue was addressed.

Ulanyov was likely referring to information stolen from Iran by Israel and provided to the IAEA. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly pressured the IAEA on several occasions to follow up on information contained in the documents. (See ACT, November 2018.) The documents allegedly provide more information about Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, which the IAEA assessed was halted in 2003.

Grossi pushed back against assertions that the IAEA should not have acted on information provided by states. He said on June 15 that the IAEA does not take any information provided “at face value” and that the agency conducts “dogged technical and scientific analysis of information coming from any state.”


The IAEA Board of Governors approved a resolution calling on Iran to provide more information about its past nuclear activities.

Iran Continues to Stockpile Uranium

July/August 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) continues to grow in violation of the limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, but the country is abiding by the monitoring and verification mechanisms put in place by the accord, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported.

An International Atomic Energy Agency camera monitors activity at Iran's Uranium Conversion Facilities in 2005. As Iran has violated the uranium production limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, it has not curtailed the agency's inspection efforts. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)According to an IAEA report on June 5 on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has stockpiled 1,571 kilograms of uranium enriched to a level of less than 5 percent uranium-235, significantly more than the 202 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent (the equivalent of 300 kilograms of uranium gas enriched to 3.67 percent) allowed by the accord. When the IAEA last reported on Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA in March, the stockpile was 1,020 kilograms.

Kazem Gharib Abadi, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, emphasized in a June 16 statement to the agency’s Board of Governors that Tehran is ready to “reverse all remedial actions” taken to reduce compliance with its JCPOA obligations if the other parties to the deal take “credible practical steps” to implement their obligations under the accord. He said that “words do not ensure” that Iran benefits from the deal and that actions are needed.

Iran first announced it would begin taking steps to breach limits set by the nuclear deal in May 2019, one year after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran lifted by the accord. (See ACT, June 2019; June 2018.) Iranian officials have continued to reiterate that Tehran will return to compliance with the deal if its demands on sanctions relief are met.

Gharib Abadi singled out the three European parties to the deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and accused them of succumbing to U.S. bullying and urged them to take steps to meet their obligations under the JCPOA “before it’s too late.”

In a June 19 statement, the foreign ministers of the three European states said they met their obligations to lift sanctions under the deal and “have gone beyond the commitments required by the agreement to support legitimate trade.”

They urged Iran “to pursue substantial discussions and actions in coordination with us” to preserve the deal. The statement said the three countries will seek a ministerial meeting to take stock of the dispute resolution mechanism process. In January, the three countries triggered the process outlined in the nuclear deal to address Iran’s breaches of the accord.

Although Iran continues to breach JCPOA limits, Tehran has refrained from taking new actions that violate the agreement, despite having announced on Jan. 5 that it would no longer adhere to any restrictions on its nuclear activities.

Nevertheless, the IAEA “has not observed any changes to Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments in connection with” the Jan. 5 announcement, said agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi on June 15.

The United States took no solace in that finding. The IAEA report “makes clear that Iran has continued to expand its proliferation-sensitive activities and is showing no signs of slowing its destabilizing nuclear escalation,” said Jackie Wolcott, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, on June 16. Iran’s actions are “transparent attempts at extortion” and are designed to “raise tensions rather than defuse them,” she said.

Wolcott may have been referring to the growing size of the LEU stockpile and Iran’s expansion of enrichment activities using advanced centrifuges.

Of the 1,571 kilograms of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent U-235, the IAEA noted that 483 kilograms are enriched to about 2 percent, a level that does not significantly affect Iran’s ability to produce weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb, should Tehran make the decision to do so.

Yet, with 1,088 kilograms of material enriched to between 3.67 and 4.50 percent, Iran now has enough LEU that, if enriched to weapons grade, is sufficient for one nuclear bomb. If Iran were to use the 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and the 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow to pursue weapons-grade enrichment, it could produce enough material for a bomb in three to four months, according to expert assessments. When the JCPOA was fully implemented, that timeline was 12 months.

Such an effort would be quickly detected, however, as the IAEA report noted that Iran continues to cooperate with the verification and monitoring mechanisms put in place by the JCPOA, including tracking of enrichment levels in real time.

The IAEA also reported that Iran continues to breach limitations put in place by the JCPOA on research and development of advanced centrifuge machines. According to the June 5 report, Iran is withdrawing enriched uranium from cascades of 164 IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges and a cascade of 135 IR-6 centrifuges. Under the JCPOA, Iran is only permitted to test a small number of advanced machines with uranium and is prohibited from withdrawing any enriched material.

The IAEA report noted that Iran has not resumed construction on the Arak reactor based on its original, more proliferation-sensitive design or resumed uranium enrichment to 20 percent.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo terminated sanctions waivers allowing international cooperation on conversion of the Arak reactor and the import of 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel for Iran’s research reactor. (See ACT, June 2020.) The parties to the JCPOA are required under the deal to assist with the conversion and the transfer of 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel to Iran. Without the waivers, however, any continued cooperation could be penalized by the United States.

Gharib Abadi said that the “unlawful conduct” of the United States is “endangering international cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and technology” and a “clear contradiction” of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Resolution 2231 endorsed the nuclear deal.

Iranian officials have threatened to resume work on the Arak reactor based on the original design, which would produce enough plutonium for about two nuclear weapons per year, if the international cooperative efforts to convert the reactor were halted. Iran has also threatened to resume enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level that poses much more of a proliferation risk than the current enrichment level of less than 5 percent, if necessary to produce fuel for its research reactor.

The IAEA report said Iran received a shipment of 20 percent-enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor in April, prior to Pompeo’s announcement.


Tehran has enriched and stored more reactor-grade uranium while allowing the IAEA to monitor its nuclear activities.

U.S. Sets Global Partnership Priorities

July/August 2020
By Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson

The United States is prioritizing the security of chemicals to help restore the norm against chemical weapons use during its chair of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction for 2020, a State Department official told Arms Control Today.

A scientist works at a laboratory of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. The OPCW has received support from the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction to help nations prevent their chemical industries and materials from being misused. (Photo: OPCW)Increasing biological security will also be a key area of focus for the Global Partnership, as the coronavirus pandemic has renewed attention on the “catastrophic impact” that a biological weapon could have, the official said in a June 17 interview.

The Global Partnership is a multilateral initiative founded in 2002 to prevent the use and proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

Initially focused on disposing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related facilities in former Soviet countries, the Global Partnership expanded its geographic scope in 2008. The initiative now implements projects worldwide to secure and destroy WMD-related materials and support partnering countries’ efforts to adhere to international nonproliferation instruments. Its work is guided by six core principles, which include managing and destroying WMD materials, implementing effective border and export controls, protecting facilities that house dual-use materials, and implementing international treaties aimed at preventing WMD proliferation.

The Global Partnership is now comprised of 30 member states plus the European Union. The chair of the initiative rotates on the same schedule as the Group of Seven. The United States last chaired the Global Partnership in 2012. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

Currently, the partnership has four working groups: nuclear and radiological security, biological security, chemical security, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) security. The initiative implemented more than 180 projects valued at more than $534 million in dozens of countries in 2019.

Although there is continuity in the scope of the working groups, the chair of the initiative can determine priorities for each over the course of a year.

The State Department official said the United States is focused on building capacity through donations during its chairmanship and on strengthening dialogue between partnership states to take into account their threat assessments and programming priorities. The official said the United States also wants to emphasize the importance of donor involvement and challenge all partners in the initiative to make substantial contributions. This includes focusing on the Global Partnership’s matchmaking process for implementing projects across the range of WMD threats. Such matchmaking pairs countries in need of assistance with state donor funding and expertise. As chair, the United States will seek to “tap into an evolving set of requirements on one side, and the priority of funding on the other, and try to match the two,” the State Department official explained.

The official said the United States takes seriously the full range of WMD threats, but the repeated use of chemical weapons over the past several years makes restoring the norm against chemical weapons usage a key priority for the initiative, which the United States will continue to emphasize in 2020.

The partnership’s significant efforts to strengthen chemicals security over the past few years has strengthened the regime and contributed to the capacity of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The United States plans to build on this work, and efforts to restore the norm against chemical weapons use will be a “centerpiece” of the Global Partnership’s work in 2020, the official said. The official noted that the working group plans to further develop best practices for chemicals security infrastructure and continue to build a network of experts on which the international community can draw.

The Global Partnership has a number of ongoing projects that support these goals. The United States announced $7 million in funding for the OPCW’s center for chemistry and technology and has funded a project since 2011 to assist states in securing chemicals and assessing the evolving threat of chemical weapons use. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, and Pakistan are some of the states that have benefited. Germany, in connection with the OPCW, funded workshops on chemicals security from 2009 to 2020 for professionals working in chemicals industries in Africa, Asia, and South America.

In the biological security working group, the official said the United States is concerned that nefarious actors are “paying attention to the consequences of the current pandemic” and may too become interested in biological weapons. The officials said that the pandemic has highlighted gaps in biosecurity and noted that some states have already requested help through the initiative to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Requests for assistance have included training for using personal protective equipment correctly.

The United States is also looking to prioritize building biological incident response capabilities and developing sustainable practices to minimize the risk of a future, intentional biological incident, the official said. The official also noted important progress on linking global health and security efforts in 2019 and said the United States will continue that work.

Past projects funded by the partnership have focused on capacity building to respond to biological threats. Germany funded a project in the Sahel region of Africa from 2016 to 2018 that established a regional response network, and Japan funded work during 2017–2019 to build capacity to diagnose infectious tropical diseases in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the nuclear and radiological security working group, the United States is focusing on a range of issues, including enhancing operational resilience; supporting implementation of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the parties to which will hold a conference in 2021; and priorities identified in the action plan released during the 2016 nuclear security summit.

The Global Partnership was one of five organizations tasked with continuing the work of the nuclear security summits, which aimed to secure and minimize weapons-usable nuclear materials in civil programs and raise awareness of the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The partnership’s action plan includes supporting efforts to increase cybersecurity and insider threat mitigation and working with the IAEA on nuclear security priorities.

The working group is scheduled to meet in July to discuss how the partnership can build on the IAEA’s February 2020 nuclear security conference.

The partnership has also contributed to continuing efforts to secure nuclear and radiological materials. The United States, for instance, is funding a 10-year effort through 2024 to secure high-threat radioactive sources in Kazakhstan, and Canada is working with nine Latin American countries from 2018 to 2022 to set up nuclear detection architecture to detect material outside of regulatory control.

The CBRN working group is taking a different approach to its mandate in 2020, the official said, noting that efforts will focus on implementing export controls and creating consensus recommendations on areas including addressing sanctions evasion and countering proliferation financing. The official said the working group will continue to advance implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to prevent WMD proliferation to nonstate actors and work more closely with the World Customs Organization on its capacity-building programs. The United States also hopes to revitalize matchmaking on CBRN projects and make strategic trade controls a permanent focus of the working group.

The United States is currently engaged in a multiyear program with a number of states in the Asia Pacific and East African regions to devise strategic trade controls and better enforce UN Security Council sanctions targeting North Korean proliferation.

The Global Partnership’s 31 members are primarily located in North America and Europe, but the United States has no plans to expand the initiative’s membership at this time. The State Department official said Washington hopes to strengthen existing members’ participation and to implement new project proposals through the matchmaking process.

The State Department official said that the pandemic has created new challenges for the initiative, but noted that the Global Partnership is taking an innovative approach to virtual meetings that allow the initiative’s threat reduction work to continue. Partners now facilitate virtual engagements, remote training, and distance learning in place of their regular activities.

Holding the rotating chair of the 30-nation group, the United States plans to focus on chemical weapons.


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