Iran Misconceptions — Plus One

David Albright and Jackie Shire of ISIS fame have published a paper on “seven misconceptions about Iran’s nuclear program”: It’s worth a read.

While we’re on the topic — just for the heck of it — I’d like to add an eighth misconception. Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about “breakout”:, it is mistaken to assume that there is a linear relationship between how many centrifuges are spinning at Natanz and when Iran “gets the Bomb.” It’s a bit more complicated than that. Breaking out of the NPT — whether by treaty action or by sneaking out — would be an extremely risky proposition, no matter how many centrifuges Iran builds.

Under the logic of a worst-case scenario, where sheer enrichment capability leads to swift weaponization, heedless of consequences, breakout would have happened already.

That’s why “attention-getting phrases”: like “the window is closing” or “the clock is ticking” can be a little misleading. Breakout is a high-stakes leadership decision, not a technological threshold.

*Update*. Herb Keinon in the _Jerusalem Post_ — or rather, his anonymous sources — “make exactly this point”:

bq.. “I would be careful about all the declarations on this matter,” said one senior government official who deals with the issue, adding that a decision by Teheran to go full throttle toward the building of a bomb was dependent on numerous different decisions the government would have to make, and which it had simply not yet made.

In the meantime, the official said, the Iranians have decided to continue to enrich as much low grade uranium as they can, and to also continue development in the field of ballistic missiles at a level that would not make their situation with the international community much worse than it already is.

p. Exactly right!

*Update 2*. I should also mention “this recently published interview”: in _Ha’aretz_ with Uzi Arad, a senior adviser to the Israeli prime minister (and very possibly the anonymous person quoted above). The passage starts with a question by the interviewer, Ari Shavit:

bq.. [Shavit] Your main front as national security adviser will be the danger of a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Middle East. But as far as we know, Iran has already crossed the point of nuclear no-return and has enough fissionable material to assemble a first nuclear bomb.

[Arad] The point of nuclear no-return was defined as the point at which Iran has the ability to complete the cycle of nuclear fuel production on its own; the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material without depending on outsiders. Iran is now there. I don’t know if it has mastered all the technologies, but it is more or less there. However, *the term “no-return” is misleading. Even if Iran has fissionable material for one bomb, it is still at a low grade of enrichment. And if it wants to conduct a test, it will not have even one bomb. It follows that Iran is not yet nuclear and not yet operational. Serious obstacles still lie in the way. The international community still has enough time to make it stop of its own volition.*

Still, looking back, we see a dramatic failure here. A red line was defined and Iran crossed it.

p. Emphasis added. I tried to make “a similar point”: back in February:

bq. First, 1 SQ would be one heck of a thing to exit the NPT over. If the Iranians tested their first and only nuclear device to demonstrate that they had it, they would promptly stop having it. So 2 SQ would be the realistic threshold of concern, and even that seems a bit low. The North Korean precedent is instructive: they didn’t proclaim themselves to be nuclear-armed, or prove that point, until they had enough plutonium on hand for maybe half a dozen devices.

Incidentally, the passage from the interview shown above contains the first explicit definition I’ve yet seen of “point of no return,” a phrase much favored by Israeli talking heads when discussing the Iranian nuclear program.

2 thoughts on “Iran Misconceptions — Plus One

  1. William deB. Mills

    Marvelously well-argued post. Wish the obvious politicians would read this. But I can say from experience most can’t handle big words like “nonlinear.”

    Sorry, had to get that off my chest before asking my question:

    to what extent do you think the threats from Israel about a first strike against Iran, which of course has no nuclear counterstrike at all, will induce Iran to take the risky step of a breakout?

  2. Josh

    Thanks. In fairness to those who may not agree, I should point out that 1 SQ of HEU would be a very serious matter. I just don’t think that they’d go for merely 1 SQ.

    I don’t think the Israelis would use nuclear weapons first. It’s a grotesque idea, and you will note that prominent hawkish Israeli strategists like this guy consider the idea of nuclear first strike quite terrible, and speak only in terms of a second strike.

    On the other hand, conventional strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure by Israel, the United States, or the United States in combination with other allies could not be ruled out. In that event, Iran might be expected to withdraw from the NPT, a very problematic prospect.

    It is possible that the threat of force is keeping Iran in the NPT, and the threat of NPT withdrawal is keeping force in check. Mutual deterrence.


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