For all of their sharp disagreements over the particulars of foreign policy, everyone in Washington seems to agree on one thing — that the overarching objective of American policy toward Iran should be, as President Barack Obama frequently intones, to “prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.”
They’ve got it wrong. The primary objective of American policy must be a sweeping degradation of Iran’s nuclear industrial infrastructure, preferably by diplomatic means, even if the resolute pursuit of this goal provokes Iran into rashly attempting the construction of a bomb — indeed, especially if it does so.
Bear in mind that Iran hasn’t been rushing to build a bomb. Rather, it has been working steadily to increase its breakout capacity — the ability to successfully produce a nuclear weapon on short notice, if it made a mad dash to do so. According to the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 7,154 kg of under-5% low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 196 kg of near-20% medium enriched uranium (MEU), altogether enough to build six or seven bombs if enriched further to weapons grade (i.e., about 90%). With over 18,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz and Fordow facilities, Iran’s breakout time is currently four to six weeks — which is to say, that is how long it would take to produce a sufficient quantity of weapons grade uranium (WGU) for its first bomb, according to an October 24 reportby the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), plus whatever extra time is needed to construct a serviceable explosive device.
Iran’s paramount goal is to inch as close as possible to the finish line without triggering a military response, then reach a permanent settlement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that preserves as much of its breakout capacity as possible in exchange for an end to sanctions that have hobbled its economy.
Achieving an internationally-legitimized nuclear threshold status has immense strategic advantages for the Islamic Republic, above and beyond the ability to rapidly weaponize at a few months’ notice: Fear of provoking Tehran to cross this final threshold likely will discourage the international community from slapping on future sanctions for sponsoring terrorism, bloody proxy interventions in the region (including Syria), human rights violations, and Iran’s various other rogue-state activities. And Iranian threshold status is just as bad as a bomb in instigating a regional nuclear arms race.
Phase one of this strategy had largely run its course by the time Iran began secretly negotiating with Obama administration officials in 2013, and Iran’s enrichment efforts had slowed considerably. Moving substantially closer to the nuclear goal line (e.g., by accumulating sufficient MEU to build a bomb without having to enrich LEU all the way up to weapons grade) would have …read more