Shrinkage of breakout time 'emboldens' Iran, Obama says

Before negotiations began two years ago, Iran was operating several thousand centrifuges designed based on 1970s technology.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- Failure to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will lead to an "emboldened" Iran, driven back on the path toward nuclear arms with an ever-growing uranium enrichment capacity, US President Barack Obama said in an interview aired on Sunday.
The appearance was another opportunity for the US president to outline his extensive argument in favor of the Iran nuclear deal reached last month. But in this availability, with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the president addressed some specific provisions concerning skeptics regarding Iran’s continued enrichment capacity under the agreement.
Before negotiations began two years ago, Iran was operating several thousand centrifuges designed based on 1970s technology and Tehran had begun installing more advanced centrifuge models that had the ability to enrich uranium at a more efficient pace.
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Factoring in for the number of centrifuges installed in cascades, as well as their efficiency level, nuclear experts can produce an estimated “breakout” time – the amount of time required for that infrastructure to produce enough weapons-grade material for a single nuclear bomb.
“If Iran is able to get a nuclear weapon, if its breakout time remains as short it is – as it is right now and they are installing advanced centrifuges, and so on – then they will be emboldened to engage in more of the activities, which are not constrained or bound by the amount of money Iran has, but rather have to do with the very strategic decisions that Iran is making at any given time,” Obama told Zakaria in the interview.
Under the JCPOA, Iran’s uranium enrichment program is limited to a single site, Natanz, for 15 years, under constant monitoring by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is allowed to continue research and development into advanced centrifuge models over the life of the deal, and ultimately will be allowed to install those advanced models at Natanz after 10 years.
After 15 years, all limits on the number and efficiency of those centrifuges expire – thus allowing Iran’s breakout time to shrink. In a debate in which the president says his opponents are denying the public raw facts, this is not one of them: Obama himself acknowledges that Iran’s breakout time, under the deal, will legitimately shorten over time.
“It is true that after 15 years,” Obama said in a phone call with supporters on July 30, “they are going to have a greater enrichment capacity than they do right now.”
Critics fear that Iran’s ever-shortening breakout time will, indeed, embolden Iran – and that the deal “paves that pathway,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said several times in recent weeks.
Netanyahu, and his fellow opponents of the deal, claim this as a fundamental problem with the accord: That the JCPOA in its current form allows Iran to become a nuclear- threshold state in 10 to 15 years, with the full endorsement of the international community.
But the president points to the dynamics of the negotiating table and international law to explain the outcome of the talks.
“The Non-Proliferation Treaty is very clear about guarding against the weaponization of nuclear power, but it does not speak to prohibitions on peaceful nuclear power,” Obama told Zakaria, who asked why the US did not “stick hard” in denying Tehran a right to enrich uranium.
“We did not have the support of that position among our global allies who have been so critical in maintaining sanctions and applying the pressure that was necessary to get Iran to the table,” the president continued.
Obama also says that, in 15 years, the United States will have all the same tools at its disposal it does today to prevent Iran from breaking out to a bomb— including military force.
Only then, he says, the international community will have greater visibility into the program; more time to forge alternative paths; and a global coalition continuously united.