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What The 'Break-Out' Capacity Means.

The stand-off hinges on a single technical term: "break-out capacity". This means the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. The term is not formally part of the negotiations. But the negotiators are discussing things around the "break-out" issue - i.e., the 4,000 or so of the operating centrifuges which Iran should be allowed to keep running.

In Washington, when people in Congress and elsewhere argue over what constitutes an acceptable deal, they talk in terms of break-out: How much break-out capacity Iran would have if left with a given number of centrifuges. Iran has about 19,000 centrifuges and says it will not accept cuts and will need much more. Rowhani, like Obama, has hardline critics at home whom he cannot ignore. And, at the same time, neither Rowhani nor Obama can afford to be seen by his people as consenting to humiliation or deceipt.

The 10,000 operational centrifuges, given existing stocks of low-enriched uranium, imply an estimated break-out time of two to three months. That is about twice as long as the estimated break-out time until Jan. 19, 2014, before Iran began reducing its stocks of medium-enriched uranium in compliance with an interim six-month deal reached in Geneva on Nov. 24, 2013.

The US-proposed 4,000 centrifuges to remain in operation -- depending on other dimensions to be negotiated, such as limits on enriched uranium stocks -- implies an estimated break-out time of six months to a year. But a big un-known on both sides is negotiating flexibility: How much compromise is acceptable, and at what point does a negotiator decide that no deal would be better than a bad deal on offer? Here is where prevailing American thinking about break-out capacity could damage US interests. And the same goes for the Iranian side - what number of running centrifuges will the IRGC be allowed to keep under the proposed deal?

Before deciding what is and is not acceptable in the way of break-out capacity, it would help to understand what the term means, both in the abstract and in the context of these negotiations.

The critical question is the time needed to build a nuclear weapon. Though Iran's estimated break-out time now is about two months, if Tehran tomorrow embarked on a head-long effort to build a bomb, the project would take much longer than two months.

The most realistic objective to pursue is not to make Iran's break-out impossible, but to make it a difficult and un-attractive option. This is believed to be the bottom line for the US negotiators at present, which means the Americans have already been flexible enough for a deal.

Having produced enough weapons-grade uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, for one bomb the part to take two months Iran would need to convert the UF6 to powder form, fabricate the bomb's metallic core from the powder, develop and assemble other components, and finally integrate the weapons package into a delivery vehicle - in Iran's case an IRGC-developed missile. (The IRGC has hundreds of thousands of missiles of various ranges and for different purposes, including those able to deliver nuclear war-heads).

Estimates used by the White House say this fuel-processing/assembling work takes up to a year. Even the most alarming estimates coming from other sources have it taking several months. But these and other American estimates related to Iran's break-out speed may be biased.

A former US official involved in such negotiations told the American journalist Laura Rozen (as she quoted in her report published on June 20): "What everyone tends to forget is that, when US government and academic experts speak on breakout timelines, they are usually describing a worst-case scenariowhere Iran gets everything right the first time around, even if they are completing procedures they have never tried before".

Once built, a bomb must be tested. States with nuclear weapons typically conduct multiple test explosions particularly for the smaller, more efficient designs needed for missile war-heads. Eight out of the nine countries which have nuclear weapons have openly done tests before deployment. One of them, Israel, is said to have done a clandestine test off South Africa.

Preparing, conducting and evaluating a test would take months and would also mean at least another new bomb had to be built, since the test would have eliminated the first one - or the first ones. So even if "break-out time" is only a few months, or a few weeks, the time it takes to produce a deliverable atomic weapon is about a year, if not longer.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jun 30, 2014
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