Adrees Latif / Courtesy Reuters Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York, September 2014.

Don't Fear a Sneak-Out

Why Iran Can't Secretly Build the Bomb

In the recently extended negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, the main sticking point has always been the number of centrifuges that Tehran will be allowed to keep for enriching uranium. This number is important because the more working centrifuges Iran has, the faster it could achieve a nuclear breakout. According to standard estimates, Iran’s current inventory of approximately 10,000 operational centrifuges could allow it to amass enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb in just a few months. The Barack Obama administration believes that it can convince Iran to roll back that timeline far enough to defuse the current crisis, allowing both sides to develop a more normal relationship. 

Critics of the negotiations have argued that the United States and other P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) have a misplaced focus on the number of centrifuges at Iran’s known nuclear facilities. According to them, the “breakout” scenario that has been keeping the negotiators up at night is not nearly as dangerous as the alternative scenario of an Iranian nuclear “sneak-out.” An Iran that had decided to sneak out rather than break out would play by the rules at closely monitored enrichment plants and other known facilities, while secretly building a bomb elsewhere. Thus, to be effective, a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran would have to flood Iran with international inspectors—something no self-respecting government in Tehran could ever accept. In short, the higher the chances of the sneak-out scenario, the lower the chances of a halfway decent settlement with Iran.

Washington and its partners certainly need to be on guard for all sorts of contingencies. Although it is debatable whether or not Iran really wants the bomb, the country has a demonstrated penchant for secret nuclear activities. It acknowledged the existence of its two enrichment facilities, for example, only after outside intelligence agencies discovered the first in 2002 and the second in 2009. Even today, when international investigators demand access to suspect

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