Every three months, approximately, the International Atomic Energy Agency releases a report on Iran’s nuclear program. The media summarizes the technical details — the latest levels of enrichment, kilograms of enriched uranium hexafluoride, numbers of installed centrifuges — but misses the true meaning of these figures. Those numbers, if analyzed, convey how much time Iran would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, and how much that “breakout window” could shrink in the near future. That information is critical — but currently not easily available — to policymakers or the public, even as they debate what to do about Iran’s continuing nuclear progress.
Three administrations, from both parties, have declared it unacceptable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. President Barack Obama has made abundantly clear that his policy is to “prevent, not contain” a nuclear Iran. He and members of this administration have repeatedly pledged to use “all elements of American power” in pursuit of that objective. But an effective policy cannot be designed without reference to time.
In choosing tools to pressure Iran’s leadership to give up its military nuclear ambitions, an important consideration must be how long those measures will require to take effect; will it be before, or after, Iran has developed a nuclear weapons capability? No matter how effective, policies that take too long to yield results cannot meet the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.
Appropriate policies for preventing a nuclear Iran cannot be developed without two pieces of information: how much time it would take to detect and respond to an attempt to produce fissile material, thereby “breaking out” of the safeguards and limitations imposed on it by IAEA regulations; and how soon Iran will be able to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear device faster than it would take to detect and respond to such a break out. If Iran’s break out window grows too small, it will enter the zone of undetectability — where it will be almost impossible to react to and stop an Iranian attempt to produce weapons-grade uranium — rendering a policy of prevention moot.
Intelligence agencies, think tanks and experts analyze available data to estimate this information. Our work at the Bipartisan Policy Center, for example, suggests that right now, it would take Iran about 100 days, a little over three months, to produce 20 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium, enough for a nuclear weapon. That window, according to our analysis, could slip below six weeks — our estimate of the threshold of undetectability, or the minimum time it would take to detect, mobilize and respond to an Iranian break out — in mid-2014.