U.N. Nuclear Watchdog Report Likely To Indicate Iranian Progress Toward ‘Breakout Capability’

A flood of reports today hinting at revelations about the Iranian nuclear program in the upcoming U.N. atomic agency’s report will surely raise the temperature in Washington for a military strike against Iran. The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to detail Iranian progress toward certain components of a nuclear weapons program that form a series of stepping stones toward full capability.

In one of the most detailed media accounts, the Washington Post describes leaks (some named) that Iran is working on a nuclear trigger that would be necessary for a bomb and that foreign experts helped Iran overcome key hurdles in the 1990s. And the Financial Times writes that the IAEA discovered, thanks to satellite images, a chamber made to contain explosive tests, with a Western diplomat commenting that “There is no smoking gun in the report but a gradual and telling accumulation of evidence of Iran’s intent.”

However, overlooked in much of the attention given to the Iranian nuclear program is that, while the IAEA report is likely to conclusively belie Iran’s claim of a peaceful nuclear energy program by pointing towards developments tied only to weapons, it doesn’t mean that the Iranians are on the verge of testing a nuclear bomb. Instead, it points toward a so-called “breakout capability.” The Central Intelligence Agency defines the term as:

Knowledge, infrastructure, and materiel, which usually lie beneath the threshold of suspicion, but which can be rapidly adapted or reorganized to allow for weaponization processes to be undertaken. Such capabilities require pre-disposed resources and often employ dual-use technology, equipment, or knowledge.

In other words, a “breakout capability” is not the same as an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon, leaving the U.S. and the West some — albeit less and less — room yet to maneuver to avoid what would be a disasterous military adventure to delay Iran’s nuclear program by one to three years.


That assessment still corresponds with comments made earlier this year by the Obama administration Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He had this exchange with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI):

LEVIN: Now, relative to Iran, Director Clapper, you mentioned in your statement that you do not, we do not know, talking about the Intelligence Community, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons. I read into that that Iran has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program. Is that correct?

CLAPPER: Yes, sir.

Clapper said he made his claims with “high level of confidence,” and they match up with what press reports indicate is the consensus opinion of U.S. intelligence agencies.

A 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment concluded Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003. While, in the Post today, nuclear expert David Albright said Iran’s “program never really stopped,” the Arms Control Association (ACA) said in a statement to ThinkProgress that “Clapper’s statement is not inconsistent with the notion that some weapons-related [research and development] has resumed which is not part of a determined, integrated weapons-development program of the type that Iran maintained prior to 2003.”

Former top intelligence analyst and now Georgetown professor Paul Pillar told ThinkProgress by email:

Major Iranian decisions still have to be made before Iran produces any nuclear weapon. Such decisions will depend heavily on U.S. and western policies toward Iran — especially how much those policies constitute a threat that Iran must deter, and conversely how much it appears that an improved relationship with the West is possible.

As CAP’s Matt Duss wrote last week, “Beating the diplomacy drums may not be as satisfying to some as beating the other kind, but it remains the most effective way to protect the U.S. and strengthen international resolve toward changing Iran’s behavior.”