What's the Diplomatic Breakout Time for Stopping an Iranian Bomb?

At the Iran nuclear talks, U.S. negotiators have been aiming for a deal that would involve a so-called breakout time of one year — meaning a deal structured so that the Tehran regime, should it cheat, would still need at least a year to be able to produce nuclear weapons. The idea is that this would be a period long enough for inspectors to detect the cheating, and the international community — presumably the “world powers” now negotiating with Iran — to do something about it.


At a background press briefing, held Monday in Switzerland on the sidelines of these nuclear talks, an American senior administration official was asked by a reporter, “Why did you pick one year, instead of nine months, or 15 months?… What’s the reasoning behind that?”

The senior official replied that the U.S. arrived at this goal of a one-year breakout time by using a secret, proprietary model to run “very complicated calculations, which have been validated by our labs and by outside opinion leaders with security clearances because these calculations are based on classified information.” This model, and the information, and the calculations, are all so secret that according to this official the U.S. has not discussed the details with its P5+1 negotiating partners — Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. They all have their own models, and they negotiate with each other over how to haggle with Iran over arrangements that could yield some collectively acceptable margin of breakout time.

All this secrecy is disquieting, in an era when trust is not the first thing that springs to mind regarding complex government deals designed to be signed and sealed before we find out what’s in them. (If, indeed, we ever discover in full what’s in them. The full terms of the Nov. 2013 Joint Plan of Action that ushered in the now twice-extended Iran nuclear talks have yet to be disclosed by the Obama administration).


Even more disturbing, however, was the initial response of this senior U.S. official to the breakout-time question, before the official got down to such brass tacks as secret proprietary models and complex calculations. The first thing the official said was that the one-year breakout goal had been decided so early in the negotiating process that it was hard to remember: “I actually would have to go back, because it’s so — such a long time now.”

Yes, it is rather a long time. And that is a very important detail. The issue here is not only how long it might take Iran to break out to a bomb, but how long it might take the U.S. and those other world powers to genuinely face up to any such effort (and cheating is likely — Iran’s record to date has been an epic tale of nuclear deceit). Then they would probably need time to gin up the nerve to genuinely do something. Call it the necessary Diplomatic Breakout Time — the time needed for the rest of the world, or the P5+1 world powers cutting this deal, to take decisive action.

Here’s a nonproprietary, non-secret guide to how that might work. Look at the time spent already on these Iran talks. After years of European talks with Iran, and haggling over terms of broader talks… after assorted discoveries of smuggling and global front networks and secret Iranian nuclear facilities (remember Qom, 2009)… after failed talks and back channel talks and talks about talks, there eventually came the Joint Plan of Action in November, 2013, setting the framework for the current talks. Those were supposed to be wrapped up in six months with a permanent and comprehensive deal. But following the announcement of the Joint Plan, it took almost two months to get the talks started (Iran’s lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, took advantage of the break to go lay a wreath in Lebanon on the grave of the late Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyah). By the July deadline, Iranian officials were having a good time declaring their “right” to enrich uranium. The talks were extended through November, 2014. Then they were extended again, with a current deadline of June 30, 2015, and plans to reach a framework agreement for a permanent deal by the end of this month.


During the many rounds of talks, there have by now been countless (OK, I could probably count them, but it could take days) hours of bilateral, trilateral and full court meetings. There have been working dinners, and discussions in capitals. There have been rounds of meetings in Geneva, Vienna, New York, Geneva again, and now the Swiss city of Lausanne. With Iran plus the countries of the P5+1 engaging each other during well over a year of acrobatic permutations, these talks have been a seven-ring circus. Senior U.S. officials have compared the process to doing a puzzle, solving a Rubik’s cube, and at one giddy and perhaps sleep-deprived moment invoked the metaphor of “an amoeba that sort of moves in and out until all of the pieces lock into place.”

That’s how this deal is taking shape. So, if an agreement is actually reached, with a built-in buffer — as calculated by secret models — of a one-year breakout time for Iran, how does the diplomatic decision process work for the U.S. and its P5+1 partners? Presumably they would all first have to be persuaded that Iran was really cheating, and how, and how much, by whatever standards are set when the amoeba pieces lock into place. Presumably they would then have to debate and decide exactly what action to take, and — since Iran might use its talents to devise a form of cheating that such a deal has not fully anticipated and planned for — the logistics of the when, and the whom and the where and the how.


If, as the Obama administration has been considering, the deal is turned over to the UN Security Council, where Russia and China wield permanent vetoes, how long might it take to authorize and launch decisive action?

Here’s some unclassified information to help model an answer to that question. North Korea has been under UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs since 2006, when it conducted its first illicit nuclear test. North Korea is still building missiles and nuclear weapons, and the diplomats of the P5 are still brooding over what to do about it. So in that case there’s already been a diplomatic breakout time of almost nine years, and they haven’t broken out yet. If the P5+1 consummate the nuclear deal now taking shape with Iran, and Iran cheats (as it almost certainly will) what, realistically, would be the diplomatic breakout time for dealing with that? Factor in your own best guess, but all the signs suggest it would take a lot more than one year.



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