Cross-posted from Consortium News
As diplomats began drafting a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and Western sanctions in Vienna on Tuesday, U.S. officials were poised to demand a drastic cut in Iran's enrichment capabilities that is widely expected to deadlock the negotiations.
Iran is almost certain to reject the basic concept that it should reduce the number of its centrifuges to a fraction of its present total, and the resulting collapse of the talks could lead to a much higher level of tensions between the United States and Iran.
Both Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. proliferation official Robert Einhorn have explained the demand that Iran give up the vast majority of its centrifuges as necessary to increase Iran's "breakout time" to at least six months, and perhaps even much longer.
Einhorn, who was the State Department's special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control until June 2013, wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution that the number and type of centrifuges "will be limited to ensure that breakout times are ... a minimum of 6 to 12 months at all times."
In a separate article in The National Interest, Einhorn wrote that such a "breakout time" would entail a reduction from Iran's present total of 19,000 centrifuges to "a few thousand first-generation centrifuges."
Kerry suggested in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 8 that the administration would try to get a breakout time of more than one year but might settle for six to 12 months. He compared that with the two months he said was the current estimate of Iran's breakout capabilities.
"Breakout" has been touted by hardline think tanks as a non-political technical measure of the threat to obtain the high-enriched uranium necessary for a bomb, but it is actually arbitrary and highly political.
Even proliferation specialists who support the demand to limit Iranian enrichment capabilities severely, however, including both Einhorn and Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's former special assistant on weapons of mass destruction, believe that "breakout" is more about the politics surrounding the issue than the reality of the Iranian nuclear program.
In an interview with IPS, Samore said the breakout concept can only measure the capability to obtain the necessary amount of high-enriched uranium from acknowledged facilities -- those that are under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It does not deal with a scenario involving secret facilities, he said, because it is only possible to estimate rates of enrichment in facilities with known quantities and types of centrifuges.
The use of the breakout concept is based on the premise that Iran would make a political decision to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade levels in its Natanz and Fordow plants as rapidly as possible. That would mean that Iran would have to expel the IAEA inspectors and announce to the world, in effect, its intention to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Samore, who left the Obama administration in January 2013 and is now the executive director for research at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Security, told IPS, "It's extremely unlikely that Iran would actually take the risk for single bomb," calling it "an implausible scenario."
Samore is no dove on Iran's nuclear issue. He is also president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an organization that puts out hardline propaganda aimed at convincing the world that Iran is a threat trying to get nuclear weapons.
Another problem with the specter of "breakout" is that, even if it took the risk of enriching the necessary weapons-grade uranium, Iran would still have to go through a series of steps to actually have a bomb that it could threaten to use.
A report released last week by the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that calculations of breakout capability "are rough and purely theoretical estimates" and that they "omit inevitable technical hitches" and "an unpredictable and time-consuming weaponization process."
According to the testimony by director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2010, that process, including integrating the weapon into a ballistic missile, would take three or four years.
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