President Obama is pitching his impending nuclear deal with Iran on the theory that it will enlarge the mullah’s “breakout time” from two or three months to a year, for a decade. I’m skeptical enough about expert opinions, especially in a highly politicized context, to wonder how seriously we should take these breakout time estimates. Do we really know how soon Iran could obtain a nuclear device under hypothetical circumstances?
Whether we do or not, I assume we can identify the directional impact of a particular measure. Thus, if Iran has fewer centrifuges, it’s not implausible to believe that the breakout time might increase.
But what if, in addition, Iran obtains faster centrifuges. Might not this development offset, at least in part, any benefit from the reduction in number? Come to that, might not Iran’s breakout time actually decrease?
The question isn’t just a hypothetical. As Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of Strategic Affairs, has pointed out, Obama’s deal allows Iran to continue its research and development on more advanced, faster centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. In fact, the deal facilitates this.
Why? Because, says Steinitz, at present Iran’s research and development on centrifuges is illegal. This makes it more difficult for the Iranians to purchase material and bring in experts from around the world. With such research made legal by Obama’s deal, Iran will be able to speed up its R&D, according to Steinitz. But even if the deal doesn’t facilitate the development of faster centrifuges, it doesn’t prevent this.
Steinitz contends that with faster centrifuges, the Iranians will actually reduce their breakout time from a few months to, perhaps, a few weeks. In his view, the ability to produce faster centrifuges is more significant than the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed under the deal.
Steinitz’s estimate of a few weeks may or may not be sound; here we seem to be back in the realm of speculation. I think it’s safe to say, however, that with Iran permitted to conduct R&D on more advanced centrifuges, we shouldn’t count on this deal to produce a breakout time of one year (no cause for celebration, by the way) for a sustained period.