The lead editorial of the Washington Post on February 5, 2015, expressed the growing concern in elite circles with the contours of the emerging nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).1 Part of the concern emanates from the change in the goals of Western negotiators: rather than eliminate Iran’s potential to build nuclear weapons, they now want to restrict Iranian capabilities, which would leave Tehran in a position to break out of any restrictions in the future.2
The best way to evaluate the impending nuclear agreement is to look at the statements of high-levels officials who have been involved in the negotiations. While not all of the details of the agreement have been made public, elements have been disclosed in the international media that are deeply worrying.
For example, there is the issue of the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to retain. A centrifuge is a machine that separates uranium gas into two isotopes: U-238, which does not release nuclear energy, and U-235, which, when split, can release the energy for either a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb. The enrichment process involves producing uranium with increasing percentages of U-235. At 90 percent purity, the uranium is characterized as weapons-grade.
Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, 9,000 of which are running and 10,000 that are installed but not operating. Israel’s position is that Iran should have zero centrifuges. The reason is that if Iran truly needs enriched uranium for civilian purposes, it could import enriched uranium as do roughly 15 other countries, such as Canada, Mexico, and Spain. The Israeli position is in line with six UN Security Council resolutions that were adopted between 2006 and 2010, with the support of Russia and China. If Iran eliminated all of its centrifuges and then chose to build new centrifuges, the process would take four to five years. There would be ample time to detect Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium beyond what is needed for civilian purposes and to organize an international response.
According to Gary Samore, President Obama’s former non-proliferation adviser, at the beginning of the current round of negotiations, the United States was demanding that Iran significantly reduce its stock of centrifuges to 1,500, but in doing so dropped the longstanding U.S. policy that Iran eliminate its centrifuges completely.3
The numbers are important. In a scenario of “breakout,” in which the Iranians race to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for their first atomic bomb, the number of centrifuges largely determines the amount of time the Iranians will need to accomplish this goal.
In addition to the number of centrifuges that Iran has, there is also the issue of the amount of enriched uranium that Iran has already stockpiled. With enough low-enriched uranium, Iran can make a final push to weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb. Robert Einhorn, the former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration, has calculated that if Iran uses 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and inserts it into 2,000 centrifuges, Iran will have one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in 12 to 14 months.4
But from what we know today about the impending nuclear deal, Iran will need much less time to “breakout” to a bomb. According to multiple press reports, Western negotiators have raised the ceiling for the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to have: they have gone from 1,500 to 4,500, and they now appear to be ready to let the Iranians have 6,000 centrifuges.5 According to Einhorn’s calculations mentioned above, with 1,500 kilograms of enriched uranium and 6,000 centrifuges, Iran can produce enough weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb in six months.6
David Albright, formerly with the International Atomic Energy Agency, has estimated that with just 2,000-4,000 centrifuges Iran could achieve “breakout” in six months.7 Others suggest that the breakout timeline is even less than six months. For example, Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has warned that on the basis of expert testimony given to his committee, should Iran be permitted to keep just 4,000 centrifuges, it would have a breakout time of only three months.8
There are other factors that can shorten this breakout time even more. Iran has second-generation IR-2 centrifuges that are more sophisticated and powerful which have not been activated yet. The IR-5, with an even higher rate of enrichment, is in advanced stages of research and was already tested last fall.9 If these advanced centrifuges are activated, the Iranian breakout time will be cut precipitously.
Albright concluded that a six-month breakout time would be the minimum needed to allow for an effective international response – presumably U.S.-led – to an Iranian violation. Thus, the 6,000 centrifuge limit that the P5+1 negotiators are presently proposing will not allow sufficient time to respond to an Iranian breakout.
However, if the Obama administration decides to proceed, countries in the Middle East are likely to conclude that under these conditions, the United States has reached a bad agreement with Iran. The evaluation here is largely based on the number of centrifuges the agreement allows.
There are other dimensions to the nuclear deal with Iran that are no less important. Dennis Ross, who also served in the Obama administration and worked on the Iran file, co-authored an article on Jan. 23 expressing similar concerns. “During the course of the nuclear negotiations over the past year, Iran has been the beneficiary of a generous catalogue of concessions from the West,” Ross wrote. “The 5-plus-1 has conceded to Iranian enrichment, agreed that Tehran need not scale back the number of its centrifuges significantly or dismantle any facilities and could have an industrial-size program after passage of a period of time.”10
Undoubtedly, other countries in the Middle East will react to these concessions by accelerating their own nuclear programs. It was not surprising to see the news reports on Feb. 10 that Egypt was to procure a new nuclear reactor from Russia.11 Nuclear proliferation is likely to spread to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and others. A multipolar Middle East, which is currently facing a radical Islamist wave, will have none of the stability of the East-West balance during the Cold War. A bad agreement with Iran, in short, will leave the world a much more dangerous place.
The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served as an external advisor to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).