Questioning “breakout capability” as a constraint in Iran JCPOA talks

The concept of “preventing breakout capability in Iran” is a false and artificial constraint on the US nuclear talks with Iran.

Timeline of media mentions of “breakout capability” in general:

Popularity of nuclear “breakout capability” in media coverage

Number of times “breakout capability” was mentioned in the media since 1981: 5,973*

Number of times “breakout capability” was mentioned in the media excluding “Iran”: 246.*

(*Using Nexis)

More than 40 countries with peaceful nuclear programs could retool them to make weapons, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said yesterday amid new U.S. and European demands that Iran give up technology capable of producing such arms. (date: 2004)

U.N. official says 40 nations capable of making nukes | The Seattle Times

We hear so much about how “nuclear breakout capability” is an intolerable thing that must be prevented at all costs; I checked out the history of the claim, and it turns out the concern is pretty much only with respect to Iran. Statistically, until the manufactured crisis over Iran’s nuclear program in 2003, concern over “nuclear breakout capability” barely registered in the news though many other countries are enriching uranium and less transparently than Iran too. ie: Brazil.

One of the constant refrains uncritically endorsed and promoted by the media is the supposed “need to stop Iran from acquiring breakout capability”. The media and analysts don’t seem.to have much to ask about “breakout capability” that everyone apparently agrees Iran must be prevented from acquiring even if that means attacking overt NPT-compliant sites in Iran. Where does this idea come from, who defined its terms and why etc, we’re are never told. It is just posited as a fact in the reporting, as if a statement of natural law. So I decided to check on it using my access to news databases such as Nexis, (which may be conveniently available to anyone in the US with a library card, and certainly available to any self-respecting journalist or analyst.)

First, and just to clarify the legalities: “Breakout capability” refers to a country’s ability to suddenly transform their civilian nuclear abilities that are legal and permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to making nukes.

The idea behind the fear about “breakout capacity” or “threshold status” is that a country with nuclear technology may so quickly make nukes that nobody has a chance to stop them, but when this “breakout capability” (“threshold status”) is achieved precisely, is arbitrary; there is nothing “illegal” about having acheived this status.

The Iranians have been complaining about how the US moves the goalposts in negotiations. The whole concept of a “preventing breakout capability” is itself a moving goalpost. Until recently it was insisted that merely having the technology and knowhow to enrich uranium is intolerable as it provides ‘breakout capability,’ – in fact Bush insisted that Iran not even have the “knowledge” of enrichment – however closing the barn door on enrichment is a little too late though some have tried and still insist that there is no “right to enrichment” at all. Indeed up to the signing of the JCPOA, Sec of State Clinton had insisted that Iran didn’t have a right to enrichment; it was only after the Obama admin dropped that “Zero Enrichment” precondition (in his second term) that showed any willingness to resolve the nuclear pretext without regime change, and only then that a deal became finally possible though Iran had been offering better terms than the JCPOA back in 2005. Even the US representative to the NPT talks agreed that enrichment is quite acceptable under the NPT, aside from the fact that several countries enrich uranium already and more are planning to do so.

So another arbitrary line is now drawn, defining “breakout capability” for Iran (and Iran only) as “having enough enriched uranium, which if enriched further, would be enough for 1 nuclear weapon.” But why? Who says this should pose a limit in talks, and should trigger military action? Where does this standard come from? Why should this standard to be applied selectively to Iran? These are all questions never asked in the reporting, but not that it is Iran who is the “intransigent” party to the talks nonetheless.

In fact “threshold status” or “breakout capacity” is not a violation of the NPT; it is inevitable in having nuclear power. The goal of the inspections regime set up under the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to catch a country “diverting fissile material to non-peaceful uses” before it turns into bombs (everything else up to actually manufacturing nukes is not prohibited by the NPT.) However, simply having a “nuclear weapons capability” (however you arbitrarily define it) itself is neither a violation of NPT nor rare in the world & the job of IAEA, far from preventing breakout capability, is to promote nuclear tech which indeed “could be” theoretically used for nukes simply because nuclear tech is inherently dual-use. The IAEA judged more than 20 years ago that 40 countries could indeed make nukes if they wanted; this isn’t because they secretly plan on doing so, rather it is because they simply have technology which gives them the option to do so. Unlike them, Iran has agreed to far more restrictions on its nuclear program. (And note that nuclear weapons technology or know-how in general, is not “secret” nor hard to find, much of it having been declassified years ago, and it never was really much of a secret anyway.)

So I spent some time checking into the statistical use of the phrase “breakout capability” in the media; the results were quite enlightening. It seems the concept is basically cooked-up to be applied to Iran. Sure, the concept of breakout was already long known, and the subject of some concern (there are different terms applied, i.e. Australian FM Bill Hayden wanted Australia to develop a “prenuclear weapons capability”) but when it comes specifically to the media’s concern with the issue of nuclear breakout, it seems they only recently discovered it, and only with respect to Iran:

The earliest reports about “breakout capability” (or capacity) in the news is from the 1980s when there was concern about the anti-ballistic missile treaty and Russia’s ability to “breakout” by rapidly manufacturing anti-ballistic missile missiles. There are occasional references to breakout capability in Iraq too but specifically with respect to chemical and biological weaons. It is only around 2008 that we see “breakout capability” being promoted in the media as a concern, and only with respect to Iran:

… this would speed up the day when they could have a break out capability — the ability to make a small arsenal,” said Gary Samore

Iran Is Reported to Test New Centrifuges to Make Atomic Fuel – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Gary Samore here was complaining about why Iran had an indigenous enrichment capability when Iran could just buy the reactor fuel from Russia … he apparently forgot that 1- the West helped Iran start that enrichment capability including the US, and 2- the US itself accused Russia of practicing “energy blackmail” on Europe; so naturally why should Iran abandon her sovereign rights to be reliant on Russia? Of course, this is a nonsense argument, but it does show the complete bad-faith of US authorities when speaking on things nuclear related to Iran.

Anyway By 2010, US officials warning about Iranian “breakout capability” were starting to be commonplace,

… International Atomic Energy Agency , Glyn Davies, warned that Iran had ”possible breakout capacity .” Administration officials say that Mr. Davies’ assessment was technically accurate, …

U.S. Sees an Opportunity to Press Iran on Nuclear Fuel – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

After that, the media just up the “breakout capability” and ran with it themselves. And today, it is asserted as a supposed constraint on US talks with Iran over the JCPOA in a completely unquestioned manner, indeed the media further assure us (as if the journalists have personal insight into the motivations of officials) that the JCPOA is “intended to prevent Iran from acquiring a breakout capability” (No, it is intended to allow the US a face-saving way out of the ‘nuclear crisis’ of its own making with Iran whch it can’t; Iran had long offered better terms than the JCPOA years earlier.)

“Preventing breakout capability” is simply an arbitrarily-defined and capriciously-applied concept, being used as to impose a constraint in talks with Iran that obfuscates significant legal, political & technical distinctions between nuclear “capability” & a weapons program as well as confusing enrichment with making nukes; resulting in imposing an illogical “proving a negative” standard on Iran (and not other NPT signatories who have been far less transparent ie Brazil) to show it won’t possibly at some point in the indefinite future, maybe one day decide to make nukes  (which is of course impossible to prove, and deliberately so.) 

To demand that Iran not have breakout capability, is to not very different than the “poison pill” Zero Enrichment demand used to blameshift & deliberately kill-off nuclear talks with Iran in the past, as well as the demand that Iraq prove it wasn’t hiding WMDs though no one could find them.

And yet the the mindless scaremonger about Iran ‘breakout capability’  continues without the least attempt to question the concept; the practically existentional necessity of preventing Iran from achieving “breakout” above all else is simply posited as if a natural fact, never mind that even if the JCPOA doesn’t exist, all the usual safeguards of the NPT to which Iran is still a member in good standing still are in place…so there just is no “crisis”, nor are there any ticking clock by which time a deal must be struck else Iran will have…what? a bunch of enriched uranium under safeguards that Iran created in the first place as leverage to try get the US to take Yes for an answer to a deal in which Iran agreed to limitations far beyond any obligation & for naught.