At his recent speech to the US Congress Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated what he considered to be two major failings of the emerging deal with Iran:

  • During an interim period of about ten years, the deal would only limit Iran’s breakout time (the period to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for one nuclear weapon) to one year, which he considered too short.
  • After the interim period, the deal would permit Iran to be treated like any other signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This would allow an ill-behaving Iran a short breakout period to an entire nuclear arsenal.

He recommended resolving the first concern by increasing sanctions on Iran and demanding a much longer breakout time through dramatic reduction in the size of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. With regard to his second concern, he argued that for Iran to be treated like any other signatory of the NPT, it should be required to cease aggression against its neighbors, refrain from support of terrorism, and renounce its threats against the State of Israel.

Breakout during the Interim Period

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first concern, breakout during the interim period, is unreasonable. If Iran moves towards weapons-grade uranium using facilities that are under IAEA safeguards – this will be known to the world community within a few weeks at most. The emerging deal includes very aggressive inspections in Iran, well beyond the requirements of the NPT, including frequent inspections at declared facilities. Iran should expect that if it attempts to break out at its declared enrichment facilities, they would be quickly disabled and the breakout foiled. A year is much longer than required to assure this. In addition to strict safeguards on declared facilities, the deal will include inspections focused on detecting clandestine facilities and on the “Possible Military Dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. These will provide controls against “sneak out” using clandestine facilities, which would not be in place if no deal were struck.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recommended course of action were taken, it is extremely likely that negotiations would break down and the world would return to the status quo ante, with Iran building up its stockpile of enriched uranium and increasing its level of enrichment. The cartoon bomb that Prime Minister Netanyahu showed to the UN General Assembly in 2012 would be rapidly filled to his red line and beyond. Presumably this would return us to threats of military action. Such action, if it occurred, would only set back the Iranian program a few years, drive it underground, and leave the world with no knowledge of ongoing activities. This is undoubtedly a worse outcome than the emerging deal itself – which drains the cartoon bomb.

After the Interim Period

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s second concern, about what happens after the end of the interim period, is legitimate, if overstated. His recommended course of action, on the other hand, is both unrealizable and ineffective. Iran has in the past violated its obligations under the NPT, although it claims that this was because others violated their NPT obligations to share nuclear technology with Iran. Given Iran’s track record, the P5+1 negotiators consider it fully appropriate for the IAEA to require extensive access to both declared and suspect sites for an extended period of time, as well as complete accounting of Iran’s past nuclear program and the access required to verify this accounting. However if Iran complies fully with these requirements, showing complete transparency, there is no basis in the NPT to argue that Iran should continue to be prevented from developing peaceful, but inevitably dual-use, nuclear technology.

Elements of Iran’s military capabilities, such as its missile program, have been excluded from the negotiations. It seems unlikely that the other negotiating parties, which are key to the effective international sanctions regime, would support imposing requirements on Iran’s non-nuclear military and political activities. Furthermore, more polite talk from Iran, better hidden military adventures and less visible support for terrorist groups together provide no guarantee against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Indeed Prime Minister Netanyahu has been vocal in his criticism of President Rouhani’s “charm offensive”. Charm is an ineffective replacement for comprehensive safeguards.

What’s in the Deal

On the other hand, as part of the deal, Foreign Minister Zarif has committed Iran to signing and ratifying the so-called “Additional Protocol” of the IAEA. Once a nation has signed and ratified this protocol it remains permanently in force. The Additional Protocol was created as a voluntary option for states after the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had been pursuing an aggressive nuclear weapons program that was not detected by the then-existing safeguards of the IAEA. The Additional Protocol allows the IAEA much greater powers to inspect undeclared sites, and so permits the IAEA to conclude that a state is in overall compliance with its obligations under the NPT. Thus under the emerging deal, at the end of the interim period Iran would still be subject to as strict an inspection regime as any other nation. Indeed if tensions remain high at that time in the Middle East, the IAEA would be expected to impose a particularly strict interpretation of the Additional Protocol.

Nonetheless, a centrifuge facility capable of producing fuel for a single 1 GWe fission reactor could instead produce the material for about 30 nuclear weapons per year. If Iran eventually had the enrichment facilities needed to fuel three reactors, it could in principle therefore produce about 90 weapons worth of highly enriched uranium in a year. If it had six months of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride gas in storage, this would be increased by a factor of 1.5. However, under the Additional Protocol the IAEA would undoubtedly require frequent inspections of Iran’s enrichment facilities, and any modifications for higher enrichment levels would be in violation of their validated designs. If the IAEA detected these activities within a few weeks of their inception as would be expected, Iran would certainly not be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for the “entire arsenal” of nuclear weapons envisioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu. However it might have had the time to produce and sequester the material for a few weapons. On detection of such a violation of Iran’s commitments to the IAEA, its enrichment and other known nuclear and missile facilities would be rapidly destroyed. The international pressure on Iran to back down would be intense. Any aggressive use of Iran’s few, relatively primitive weapons would end very poorly for Iran. Foreseeing this, it seems very unlikely that Iran would pursue such a course.

The Best Path Forward

Consistent with Prime Minister Netanyahu concerns, however, it would be much better to assure that we could never arrive at this point.

The issue of uranium enrichment in non-nuclear-weapons states is not unique to Iran. Other states may choose to develop uranium enrichment facilities in order to have a secure domestic supply of fuel for nuclear reactors, and perhaps also to enjoy “nuclear threshold” status. Brazil and Japan, for example, have enrichment capabilities, and South Korea would like to. Even though the US denies that the Non-Proliferation Treaty endows the right to enrichment, practically there is no way through the NPT to prevent this.

The best path forward is for the US to develop an international consensus during the coming decade to strengthen the terms of the NPT, including strengthening and making mandatory the Additional Protocol. We should work for the implementation of real-time enrichment monitoring at all declared facilities (including those in the US), and for strengthening of the terms of the Additional Protocol, in particular those that address inspections looking for undeclared facilities. This is the only way to assure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons.

Summing Up

In sum, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first concern is ill-founded. There is no risk that Iran will produce weapons using its declared centrifuge facilities during the interim period of a deal. Breakdown of the negotiations, on the other hand, could easily lead to a near-term Iranian weapons program outside of any safeguards. His second concern is legitimate, if overstated, but his recommended cure for it is unrealizable and ineffective. The path to mitigating the risk of an Iranian breakout after the end of the interim period is through strengthening the NPT regime during the coming decade, building on the progress that was made in the 1990’s.