The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between Iran and the P5+1 in late 2013 has done nothing to delay Iran’s nuclear breakout. As discussed previously, the JPA reflects the Obama administration’s misconception that signing a deal, even a bad one, is an achievement, and Iran’s strategy of deception and delay is ongoing. The International Atomic Energy Agency has now confirmed that the JPA has not delayed Iran’s nuclear breakout at all.
Western negotiators have long focused on preventing Iran from developing a stockpile of enriched uranium. Enriching uranium means increasing its percentage of the fissile U235 isotope relative to the non-fissile U238 isotope. Naturally occurring uranium is less than 1% enriched. A nuclear weapon requires a supply of uranium enriched to around 90% (the exact enrichment required varies widely depending on weapon design). Preventing Iran from obtaining enriched uranium necessarily means preventing Iran from getting the bomb.
In theory there are other ways of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threat. Even if Iran obtains an adequate supply of highly enriched uranium, it would also need to design and build a weapon capable of igniting a nuclear chain reaction, and a means of delivering the weapon to its target.
These two steps are far more difficult to prevent than enrichment. Iran likely either already has a viable weapon design or is close to developing one. Recent reports indicate that Iran has been working on weapon design more or less continuously since the 1980s, and nuclear weapons design is relatively available to rogue actors due to A.Q. Khan’s decades of proliferation. Iran already has a means of delivery via its and Hezbollah’s global terrorist network, so it can forego the challenging miniaturization process that has stymied North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006. Alternatively, Iran could place a device aboard ship in the Persian Gulf and cast it off to any coastline in the world.
In addition, enrichment is by far the most public and most geographically expansive predicate for a bomb. Iran is enriching uranium with around 19,000 centrifuges arrayed in vast cascades. These enrichment facilities and their support buildings have significant, identifiable footprints. They can be seen, watched and, if need be, bombed. In contrast, weaponization and miniaturization research can be done in complete secret, as Iran has been doing for thirty years.
As a result, Iran’s available stockpile of enriched uranium has become a proxy measure for its proximity to nuclear breakout, and the tacit assumption is that once Iran reaches 90% enrichment, it can build a weapon on demand.
Yet Iran has made up whatever delays the JPA may have imposed with new technical advancements. The JPA required Iran to shut down some centrifuges, which it reportedly has done. The JPA also required Iran to refine some of its low-enriched uranium stockpile into a (relatively) unusable form, and Iran recently finished building the refinery and may begin converting its stockpile.
However, Iran was not required to stop researching or installing new centrifuges. To the contrary, the JPA explicitly allows Iran to research and install centrifuges, which it has done with impressive results. In the six months since signing the JPA, Iran has made existing centrifuges more efficient, and designed and installed next-generation centrifuges that are faster still.
Together, the improvements Iran made to its enrichment capacity — improvements allowed under the terms of the JPA — counterbalance the entire delay caused by its putative concessions.
This is yet further evidence that the JPA is an abject failure. It achieved nothing, but to convince Iran that the United States will dither until it is too late.