Obama’s “breakout time” shell game

Eli Lake shows that the Obama administration has been playing a shell game with the public when it comes to estimating Iran’s nuclear “breakout time.” Behind closed doors, the White House has long estimated that Iran is three months (at the most) from developing enough fissile material for a nuke. Until recently, however, Obama did not disclose this estimate. Instead, he stated publicly that it would take Iran at least a year to develop nuclear weapons.

Only now, when Obama thinks it will help sell his nuclear deal with Iran, has the administration declassified its estimate that Iran is two to three months away from developing the material it needs for a nuclear weapon. Obama argues that his deal would increase this time to about a year.

In playing this shell game, Obama has exploited the fact that “breakout time” can be measured in different ways. Most people probably understand the term to mean the time it takes to develop sufficient fissile material plus any additional time required to produce the weaponry. But it can also be understood as only the former period.

David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told Lake that administration officials appeared to be intentionally unspecific in 2013, when they were peddling the 12-months-plus timeline. According to Albright:

They weren’t clear at all about what this one-year estimate meant, but people like me who said let’s break it down to the constituent pieces in terms of time to build a bomb were rebuffed.

Albright’s group released its own breakout timetable that focused solely on the production of highly enriched uranium, not the weapon itself. It concluded Iran was potentially less than a month away.

For Team Obama to defend its one-year estimate would require it to claim that Iran needs nine months on top of the initial three month period to come up with a nuclear device. Such an argument is implausible according to Albright, who cites a leaked document from the International Atomic Energy Agency in support of his view.

In any event, if Obama really believes that it will take nine extra months for Iran to develop a nuclear device, he shouldn’t suddenly be touting a two-to-three months “breakout time” estimate.

My sense, when it comes to “breakout time” estimates, has always been that they are inherently unreliable because they assume a level of knowledge that we are unlikely to possess. This is particularly true if breakout time is defined as the time it will take to develop not just nuclear material but also some sort of weapon.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute shares my skepticism. He told Lake that “the idea [that] there is such a thing as a hard and fast formula for this is nonsense; all the physicists come up with different answers depending on what inputs they use.”

Depending too on their agenda, one suspects.

Further complicating the “breakout time” debate is the prospect, which I discussed here, that under Obama’s deal Iran reportedly can keep the fissile material development period at a few months by obtaining faster centrifuges to offset the reduction in their total number. This constitutes a huge potential loophole in the deal.

The bottom line is that when the Senate considers this deal, it should simply ignore White House claims about the amount of time its agreement supposedly will buy. Such claims are not very reliable even when offered honestly and in good faith. Here, moreover, they aren’t offered honestly and in good faith and they may be undermined by loopholes in the deal that nullify their underlying assumptions.

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