While Washington was focused on the highly visible ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and Iran over the past few weeks, the Trump administration quietly began rolling out its first real red line on the Iran nuclear program, which is that any reduction in the one year timeline it would need to produce enough material for a bomb is unacceptable.
National security adviser John Bolton went so far as to explicitly link the threat of Iran to restart additional enrichment activities to a deliberate attempt to shorten the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons. Given the announcement last month by Iran that it will begin unwinding some of its nuclear commitments, which if fully implemented will then eventually shorten this one year timeline, the stage is for a future crisis is now set.
At first glance, this move seems prudent. The Trump administration does not want to be held politically responsible for Iranian nuclear build up, so it wants to show that Iran is the one taking improper actions on weapons. Moreover, a firm stance now could potentially head off a more dangerous situation down the road. As former government experts who helped to negotiate the deal and monitor the Iran nuclear program, however, we believe this new red line on Iran is seriously flawed for four key reasons.
First, establishing this as a red line makes little sense in terms of the nuclear program itself. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was designed so that, if Iran started to exit its obligations and dash to a weapon, we would have at least a year to mount an all of government strategy to compel Iran to stop. A year was judged to be a reasonable, but not necessarily the minimum, amount of time to do so. Before the deal, Iran only needed a few months to produce enough material for a bomb, but the United States knew it could stop a breakout using force.
The decision by Iran to restart certain nuclear activities will eventually erode the breakout time barrier of a year. But this is not a breakout, and does not suggest that the United States is facing an imminent Iranian nuclear weapons threat, nor does the risk to the United States suddenly skyrocket if the Iranian breakout timeline reaches less than a year. There is still time to resolve the crisis diplomatically before using military force.
Second, in order for this threat by the Trump administration to work, Iran would have to be able to tell when it is about to cross that threshold so that, if it wants to, it can refrain from doing so. Given that the breakout timelines are based on a range of assumptions, however, it is unlikely that Iran and the United States would have a common definition of where that tipping point occurs. This presents a high risk of miscalculation on this.
Third, because of the actions of the Trump administration, the United States has few good options to enforce this red line without using force. Most options short of war have already been expended by the Trump administration, and arguably are why there is this predicament in the first place. These options include walking out of the deal and reimposing and expanding sanctions. It is unlikely that what is left on the cutting room floor of the pressure campaign could deter Iran from resuming its nuclear activities. If history is any guide, more pressure will likely cause Iran to accelerate if there is no realistic diplomatic off ramp. This leaves the threat of military strikes, the benefits of which would be negligible when compared with the risks at this early stage of Iranian nuclear build up.
Finally, an Iranian breakout using its known facilities is highly unlikely. In essence, the Trump administration would be threatening to use force and risking war to prevent an event that is unlikely to occur. Iran knows that a breakout effort would be detected and stopped. The International Atomic Energy Agency would be able to spot and report on such an attempt in days. The fact that President Rouhani did not threaten to reduce access tells you all you need to know. For Tehran, these moves are primarily about political signaling rather than building a weapon. A more likely scenario would be a covert Iranian “sneakout” that uses clandestine facilities to produce a bomb. The United States should prioritize maintaining access to the nuclear program rather than making arbitrary breakout timelines.
So what should the United States do? Put down the sabers, think about what Iranian nuclear actions are truly worth deterring, and focus on how to achieve what President Trump says he wants to do, which is getting back to negotiations with Iran. To do so, the Trump administration should spend less time thinking about poorly constructed red lines and more time considering how to craft a realistic negotiations agenda for Iran.