Teheran’s ‘break-out’ option

Nuclear threshold gives Iran the opportunity to enjoy advantages that come with nuclear weapons without paying the full price.

Ahamadinejad 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ahamadinejad 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, former CIA Director Michael Hayden referred to the Iranian nuclear issue saying that Iran, left to its own devices, planned to “get itself to that step right below a nuclear weapon, that permanent breakout stage.”
This appears to be the first time a current or former senior administration official pointed to the option where Iran would stop or slow down before crossing the nuclear threshold and to the serious implications of doing so for the international community.
A “threshold state” is one that has mastered most of the components of the nuclear fuel cycle, has an advanced scientific-technological infrastructure, has a reserve of fissile material, and is capable of fitting a nuclear warhead on a suitable delivery platform. A state’s status in this regard is a matter of choice; all that separates a threshold state from a nuclear weapons state is the strategic decision to cross the threshold.
Does Iran fit this definition? It has frequently announced that it is not developing military nuclear capabilities. Nevertheless, its leaders have been adamant, at least so far, about rejecting any compromise on the issue of enrichment in its territory, and their statements appear to be aimed at bolstering the image already taking hold in the international community that Iran already is or is close to becoming a threshold state.
Supporting this image is the assessment that the Iranians have solved the basic technical problems associated with developing nuclear weapons. Iran is building a broad-based nuclear infrastructure with redundancy, geographic dispersal, and various defensive measures at a variety of sites – open and hidden, civilian and military. Iran has been accumulating fissile material in the form of low enriched uranium while concurrently developing components connected to the military dimension of the nuclear program as well as surface-to surface missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads.
MUCH HAS been written in recent years about nuclear proliferation and the ways to address its challenges, especially with regard to Iran, and considerable thought has been devoted to the ramifications of a nuclear Islamic Republic. However, there has never been a deep, searching (open) discussion about the possibility and implications of an Iranian slowdown or cessation of nuclear development before crossing the threshold, thereby providing the country a permanent breakout capability.
The threshold option gives Iran the opportunity to enjoy most of the advantages that come with nuclear weapons capability without having to pay the full price of actually joining the nuclear club. Hayden was right in saying that reaching even that level would be “as destabilizing to the region as actually having a weapon.” Iran would be granted considerable “immunity” regarding military attacks on its nuclear facilities, because under these circumstances some may think that it is either too late or too costly to stop Iranian nuclear efforts, and that it is essential to come to terms with a threshold Iran, a process that already is taking place in some quarters.
Israel would find it difficult to justify an attack on Iranian nuclear installations in a situation like that, especially when and if Iran would provide appropriate guarantees, that at least for the time being, it was willing to remain a non-nuclear weapons state.
Doing so would provide Iran with regional and international prestige and much of the status that comes with having nuclear weapons capability and would strengthen the regime’s grip on power. From the perspective of Iran’s leaders, this latter could be the most important achievement of the country’s nuclear program.
A threshold Iran would be able to leverage its almost-nuclear status by exerting its influence on the greater Middle East and by more aggressive involvement in different arenas – Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan – free of the restrictions it might incur should it cross the threshold.
Furthermore, Iran would preserve the option of arming itself with nuclear weapons when it sees right and with relatively little warning, forcing Israel to invest in improved intelligence and the development of mechanisms that will sound the alarm when Iran takes the irrevocable step toward military nuclear capability and/or proliferation of technology or nuclear materials.
As a threshold state, Iran’s deterrence could grow stronger because of the persistent concern and fog surrounding its capabilities and intentions. This will force Israel and other states to treat it as a de facto nuclear power.
Stopping Iran before it crosses the threshold may slow down a nuclear arms race that in many ways already is taking place in the region, because states that feel threatened by nuclear weapons in Iran are likely to be less committed to developing their own nuclear programs – as some have already declared they intend to do. Second, the sense of immediacy of the threat of a nuclear attack in the region would be somewhat mitigated, along with public concern about living in the shadow of an Iranian bomb.
Despite the advantages of being a threshold state, Iran nevertheless might seek to promote its ideological and strategic ambitions at any cost, and therefore choose to continue its drive toward nuclear weapons until it “breaks out” as a nuclear weapons state. Though either case has severe implications for Israel’s strategic environment, we might need to think how to contend with a nuclear threat that is maybe just a decision away.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.