Debunking the "Breakout" Fiction

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

The current efforts to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers have so far failed to resolve the significant gaps that proved too formidable to permit the drafting of text of final agreement at the latest round in Vienna. With the July 20th deadline approaching, chances are the interim agreement will be extended another six months.

But, while such an extension may be necessary in order to hammer out the differences between the two sides, equally important is the interpretative process that shapes the perceptions and expectations of negotiators and the policy-makers, particularly in the West. Unfortunately, there are 'structural' problems that require urgent attention, otherwise the flawed Western assumptions carried on in a taken-for-granted fashion may prove formidable obstacles precluding a mutually-beneficial deal.

Concerning the latter, the Western assumption -- that Iran has reached a "nuclear threshold" and its current stock of centrifuges have resulted in a "breakout" potential, i.e., time needed to produce weapons-grade material – has become a familiar, routine characteristic of Western discourse on "nuclear Iran" with definite policy connotations. Various Western officials including the US Secretary of State John Kerry have defended last November's Geneva agreement by relying on the "breakout" argument and claiming that the agreement's caps on Iran's nuclear activities "extends the time necessary for a breakout." The agreement's critics in the US media and US Congress, have also relied on the same "breakout" argument by questioning the interim agreement, purportedly because it only extends the "window" for proliferation by no more than a few months.

There are, however, several problems with the "breakout" thesis that indicate the lack of coherence and logical consistency, not to mention the propaganda effort to impute, as rigorously as possible, a persistent "nuclear intention" on Iran's part irrespective of Iran's pronouncements and transparency measures proving the contrary.

First, as Gary Samore has rightly stated, the "breakout" argument is to some extent "artificial" and overlooks the role of clandestine efforts if Iran were ever to march down that path. In other words, the "breakout" argument must be based on an aggregate of facts, given Iran's current ability to manufacture all components of centrifuges.

Second, the vast bulk of the 'stocks of knowledge' about Iran's nuclear program stems from the UN's atomic agency (IAEA), which has repeatedly confirmed the absence of any evidence of military diversion. The recent Iran-IAEA agreement have expanded the latter's access to Iran's nuclear facilities and information, and this in turn raises the issue of "incentive parameters" for Iran to continue its pattern of cooperation with the IAEA and to implement the extensive transparency measures that give the outside world the necessary confidence about its peaceful nuclear intentions.

Yet, a key problem with the "breakout" argument is that it is based on an unhealthy nuclear skepticism that underestimates the rapid alternation between the two conditions of "full compliance" with the IAEA safeguard agreements and any future 'diversion'. Theoretically speaking, this poses a problem of action-structure that the "breakout" advocates such as David Albright and other nuclear experts in the West tend to ignore, that is, the active, transformative process of proactive interaction between Iran and the IAEA, which is solely responsible to confirm Iran's peaceful nuclear activities. Instead, implicitly if not explicitly, the "breakout" theorists emphasize the singular importance of uranium enrichment under international monitoring and, yet at the same time, ignore the transformative potential of the new spirit of Iran-IAEA cooperation that reflects a genuine and serious commitment of Iran to the IAEA norms and standards.

Third, the Western rationale for a nuclear deal with Iran that would expand the "breakout window" is seriously flawed, by virtue of the restricted functional argument that such an expansion "would give us more time to react," to paraphrase Mr. Kerry. The big question is, of course, what difference does it make if this hypothetical window is expanded from six months to one and a half year to two years or more? 

Contrary to the appearances, there is no simple answer to this question. If the idea is that this would give the "military option" more time to react, then the issue of legality of this option looms large, since short of Iran declaring to the world that it is producing nuclear material for a bomb there is no guarantee that any decision to enrich uranium to 60% or even higher would be for military purposes, given the various uses for high-level enrichment, which are not barred by NPT. 

Fourth, the functional argument behind the "breakout" discourse is deeply problematic and presents a fractured argument that makes sense only by excluding certain relevant variables, such as the assessment of Iran's incentives and disincentives with respect to a "breakout" in a calm environment made possible by a final agreement. But, these are important parameters that need to be integrated in the Western discourse on Iran, which is presently frozen in the mind-set of containing Iran's "breakout" potential as far as possible. With its narrow functionalist methodology, that excludes pertinent variables, such as the structure of incentives that would minimize and or neutralize the "breakout" scenario, the latter is in dire need of a conceptual overhaul in favor of a post-functional analysis, one that places the emphasis on the "objective guarantees" and the "structured framework" for Iran-IAEA cooperation, which altogether highlight the need for the Western policy-makers to stop their uncritical acceptance of the "breakout" fiction and focus instead on the transformative potential of a final agreement.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Breakout Fiction, Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, Nuclear Threshold, US Congress, IAEA, High-Level Enrichment, Functionalist Methodology, Afrasiabi

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