Will Iran ‘break out’ for a nuclear weapon, and what can Trump do?

THE HILL  16 July 2019

Iran is beginning to breach some of the limitations imposed on its nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it signed in 2015 and from which the United States withdrew in 2018.

Initially, Iran exceeded the stockpile of low-enriched uranium it was permitted to maintain; then it began to enrich above the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal. While enriching to just under 5 percent — well short of weapons-grade 80 to 90 percent enrichment level — the Iranians, nonetheless, are no longer respecting the limits. And, they are threatening to do much more if Europeans nations cannot act in a way to lessen the economic impact of reimposed U.S. sanctions.

There are a number of questions to pose:

Why, after continuing to respect the limits of the deal for one year following President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and resumption of tough unilateral U.S. sanctions, are the Iranians doing this now? Second, what are the practical implications of Iran’s gradual moves away from respecting the limitations? Third, does the Trump administration have an answer for Iran’s moves? And, fourth, what options make sense in responding to the Iranians?

Why is Iran doing this now? On May 4, the Trump administration ended waivers granted to eight countries to buy Iranian oil and, in doing so, it imposed a dramatically higher cost on Iran’s economy. Even though sanctions had already forced a significant decline in Iran’s economy, ending the waivers meant that Iran’s oil exports that were running at roughly 1 million barrels a day would decline to as little as 300,000 a day. The loss of revenue severely compounded Iran’s economic problems, which already witnessed a 60 percent loss in the value of the currency and a scarcity of consumer goods accompanied by soaring inflation.

The waiver decision changed the Iranian calculus from trying to outlast Trump to one of meeting Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign with one of its own: Oil tankers were sabotaged; the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen used Iranian-provided drones and rockets to hit Saudi civilian airfields and petroleum facilities; Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq hit bases with missiles where U.S. forces are located, and also targeted an oil facility in Basra used by Exxon; an American drone was shot down.

Coupled with these threatening actions in the region, the Iranians also began to walk away from some of their obligations under the JCPOA. Their purpose: to put pressure on the Europeans either to provide an economic offset to the U.S. sanctions or to put pressure on the Trump administration to ease its sanctions policy. The Iranians know the Europeans fear that if they don’t stop the Iranians from completely leaving the JCPOA, the risk of either the U.S. or Israel striking Iranian nuclear facilities will go up — and the Europeans want to prevent a conflict from erupting.

But it is not just the Europeans that the Iranians are trying to affect. They are directly challenging the Trump administration: Seeing that the president wants out of “endless Middle East wars,” they seem to think that raising the pressure might get him to back off.

What are the practical implications of a gradual Iranian walk-away from the JCPOA? In the first instance, the Iranians will be reducing the time it will take them to “break out” to producing weapons-grade fissile material.


Prior to the JCPOA, given the number of their operating centrifuges and stockpile of low-enriched uranium that exceeded 10,000 kilograms, the Iranians were estimated to be two to three months away from such a break-out capability. By reducing their stockpile to less than 300 kilograms and their operating centrifuges by nearly 50 percent, the Iranian break-out time became roughly one year.

It will take time for the Iranians to move back to where they were — but the steps they are taking will gradually shrink the time it takes to break out. Obviously, that timing will be influenced by the level to which the Iranians enrich; should they start enriching to 20 percent — something they are suggesting they may do, to provide fuel for their medical research reactor in Tehran — that would accelerate the timetable.

However, break-out time and a weapons capability are not the same thing. The former would provide weapons-grade enriched uranium — but not the weapon itself.

The massive document and digital haul that Israel’s Mossad spy agency stealthily ferreted out of Tehran revealed that the Iranians had done a great deal of work on weapons design, including experimentation and simulation. That said, no one knows exactly how long it would take for the Iranians to build a bomb. For a long time, there have been estimates that it would take the Iranians roughly a year to weaponize highly-enriched uranium. But that is a guesstimate, not real knowledge — it could be longer, or considerably shorter.

Does the Trump administration have an answer to Iran’s “maximum pressure” counter-measures? Aside from doubling down on economic pressures, the answer seems to be no. Instead, there seems to be a hope that, sooner or later, the Iranians will have to give in.

Indeed, notwithstanding national security adviser John Bolton’s statement on May 5 — that threats against our forces, our interests and our friends in the region would be met with “relentless force” — all the attacks and acts of deniable sabotage conducted by the Iranians or their proxies have drawn no direct responses. For his part, President Trump has been signaling that he wants to negotiate and has softened what he seeks, even as he says the Iranians are playing with fire; the Iranians at this point appear unimpressed and have not backed off.

What options exist for the Trump administration to respond? It can try to work through the Europeans and Russians to impress on the Iranians that they are running a real risk of provoking a military response if they begin to reduce their break-out time.

But simply passing messages would not be as effective as the Europeans, Russians and Chinese saying they will resume sanctions if the Iranians do not go back into compliance. And the problem, at this point, is that they collectively hold the Trump administration responsible for creating the danger. Only if they believe the administration may well be driven to act militarily against Iran’s military infrastructure are they likely to put real pressure on the Iranians.

It is worth recalling that, in 2012, the European Union acted to boycott Iranian oil when they feared that unless Israel saw that real pressure was being applied to Iran — the kind that Israelis believed could alter Iran’s behavior — Israel was likely to act militarily.

It was the fear of war erupting that drove the Europeans to act then. I suspect that remains true today.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.