A major concern that opponents of the recent nuclear framework deal with Iran have is that the final agreement will leave Iran as a “nuclear threshold state” after a decade. As noted by Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, “[t]he gradual expiration of the framework agreement, beginning in a decade, will enable Iran to become a significant nuclear, industrial and military power after that time—in the scope and sophistication of its nuclear program and its latent capacity to weaponize at a time of its choosing.”
Those who make such arguments, however, do not adequately take into account the demand-side of proliferation. Even if Iran becomes a threshold state, Tehran is unlike to rush to build nuclear weapons, if the United States is able to maintain credible military deterrence combined with positive incentives. Conversely, countries with advanced technological bases, even without being threshold states, are likely to be able to build nuclear weapons, if there exists no meaningful U.S. deterrent and incentives. The only real difference between an average state and a threshold state is the length of the time needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
So if the United States is not able to credibly threaten or incentivize a potential nuclear weapons state, does the so-called breakout time really matter that much?
Consider Iran after ten years from now. Will Tehran suddenly rush to build a nuclear weapon? The Iranian regime will first have to turn its enriched uranium or plutonium into a bomb. Then, the regime will have to test the device. Iran will then have to turn the bomb into a deliverable weapon and then produce multiple weapons. The process is time-consuming and will certainly be noticed by the international community, particularly since Tehran will have to adhere to the Additional Protocol permanently. At any of these points, the United States could decide to act with military force.
Military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities might set back the program by only a few years. To conduct a successful strike against Iran, however, U.S. forces will also have to neutralize Iran’s air force, air defenses, military command, communication and logistics infrastructure, and the country’s retaliatory capabilities in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Not an easy task – but the operation as a whole would not only damage Iran’s nuclear facilities, but also the Iranian military and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In other words, Tehran would lose a lot more than its nuclear program, if the United States decides to strike Iran.
In addition, the United States and its allies would isolate and sanction Iran. Commentators often underestimate how easily the United States would be able to devastate Iran’s economy. Iran exports 90 percent of its oil from one tiny island, Kharg Island. Embargoing or bombing the island would reduce Iran’s oil exports by 90 percent within a matter of hours. Iran is surprisingly vulnerable. As a last resort, Washington might even opt for regime change. Given these potential consequences, will the Iranians really rush to build an unreliable, rudimentary nuclear arsenal ten years from now? Unlikely.
One might fire back – what if the United States cannot credibly threaten Iran in the future? Would Iran, as a threshold state, then not rush to build a bomb? Even in such a case, the breakout time is more or less irrelevant. Without being a threshold state, Iran will certainly need more time to produce a nuclear weapon, but Tehran will eventually be able to obtain a nuclear weapon anyway. Given that the Iranian regime has the relevant nuclear technology and ways to obtain related materials, becoming a threshold state and then a nuclear weapons state would only be a matter of time without facing serious military threats from Washington. Even the most stringent limits on Iran’s nuclear program would be useless, unless the United States is able to enforce them with teeth.
The reality is that many countries around the world have sophisticated-enough technological bases to research and build nuclear weapons. Many non-nuclear weapons states, including Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and the Netherlands, already have their own enrichment facilities. A few, including Brazil and Japan, are effectively threshold states. Some countries even had nuclear weapons programs but gave them up. Many states with limited nuclear capabilities, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have the intellectual base to move towards becoming threshold states, if they wish. Yet, the world only has nine nuclear weapons states today, primarily because the United States can both credibly threaten (in case of adversaries) and protect (in case of allies) potential nuclear weapons states with its military power. It is no surprise that nuclear proliferation has slowed with the end of the Cold War, as the United States emerged as the sole superpower.
In the end, the debate regarding the so-called threshold states (whatever the term really means) is not as important as many argue. When possible, the United States and the international community should certainly seek to maximize the breakout time of potential nuclear weapons states. In case of the Iran negotiations, Tehran cannot accept the so-called zero option (no enrichment and no reprocessing) due to domestic reasons, and our international coalition will fall apart with further sanctions. What is actually critical in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, however, is for the United States to maintain robust military and economic capabilities to threaten and incentivize Tehran and other potential nuclear weapons states. Some of the policy objectives that the United States should pursue include:
• Maintenance of a strong and appropriate level of defense spending to ensure robust military presence around the world to reassure and protect our allies and partners
• Continued development of bombs powerful enough to destroy and disrupt protected nuclear facilities as necessary
• Development and expansion our existing hydrocarbon-based energy resources, notably shale oil and gas, and pursuit of non-carbon based energy to further reduce our ties to Middle Eastern hydrocarbon sources and to lower the price of energy worldwide as ways to reduce Iran’s energy revenue and leverage
• Easy access for Asian and European countries to our energy supplies through free trade and energy market liberalization so that these nations might rely less on Middle Eastern sources
• Improved relations with hostile states with proliferation potential to ameliorate their security concerns
The complex debate regarding the breakout time detracts from the real issue. The future of the global non-proliferation regime depends less on the technical details of a nuclear agreement, but more on whether the United States, through its military and economic power, is able to uphold the current world order as a whole. Doing so will require a combination of the political will at home to fix our messy and harmful budgetary situation, a forward-looking energy policy, market and trade liberalization, and smarter diplomacy.
Sungtae “Jacky” Park is the Middle East, Technology, and Nuclear Security Analyst at the American Security Project.