Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Blocking All Paths to an Iranian Bomb: How the West Can Avoid a Nuclear Maginot Line

| June 2014

Executive Summary

French Minister of War Andre Maginot became famous among military strategists for his fixation on a single route of attack that led to fatal neglect of alternatives. Seeking to defeat a German invasion along the primary East-West axis, Maginot constructed an impregnable line of fortifications in the 1930s that succeeded in preventing the attack he most feared. But when German panzers outflanked that line and rolled through Belgium in 1940, their attack from the rear led to France’s surrender in just six weeks.

In concentrating so much of their mindshare on imposing constraints on Iran's known nuclear facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak, are the US and its five negotiating partners at risk of creating a nuclear Maginot line?

In the world of business, when a firm wants a product, the first question it asks is: make or buy. Quite often, it is the latter. In highly competitive markets, for example, next-generation personal computing devices, Apple and Google also ask: overt or covert. While occasionally they publicize in advance the features of a product they will bring to market in the year ahead, more often (for example, in the case of the iPad), they develop the product in the secrecy of their own labs—and only then announce what they have done.

Graphically, these two dimensions translate into the 2x2 table on the cover that serves as the framework for this analysis. For thinking about the challenge Iran’s nuclear program poses to the US and its allies, it raises two key questions.

Figure 1

First, if in the next several years, Iran is found to have a nuclear bomb, along which of the four paths will it have succeeded?

Second, in assessing the allocation of the P5+1 governments' interest, energy, and effort to meet the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, the reader is again invited to fill in the quadrants in figure 2 below, putting 1 in the box that is consuming most of the attention, and 2, 3, and 4 for the others. Here, the same informal poll yielded a consensus around the make/overt option.

With negotiations ongoing between Iran and the P5+1 about specific constraints on nuclear activities at Iran's overt, declared sites, it is understandable that public debate focuses mostly on this path. In this spirit, the interim agreement reached in November essentially halts Iran's nuclear advance at the 9,400 centrifuges currently spinning and a stockpile of 6-7 bombs' worth of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and requires Iran to dilute or convert to oxide nearly one bomb's worth of 20% enriched uranium produced prior to the agreement. Negotiations over constraints that could be extended for a decade or beyond are focused on: transforming the heavy-water reactor at Arak to prevent it from producing plutonium for a bomb; capping the number and capability of centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium; reducing stockpiles of enriched uranium; and introducing a host of monitoring and safeguard mechanisms. Summarized in a single measurement, these limits seek to verifiably and significantly extend the "breakout time": the time required for Iran to produce its first bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium at these facilities.

The broader question, however, is: how effective will these constraints be in meeting the bottom line objective, namely, preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb? Maginot's success in blocking a direct attack along the path he fortified did not excuse his failure to defend his country.

If negotiators succeed in reaching an agreement, members of Congress, the larger policy community, and America's allies will debate the adequacy of what is achieved at the negotiating table as they consider the repeal or waiver of legislated sanctions. Assessing the contributions of any agreement to the central objective—no Iranian bomb—thus requires considering the agreement's impact along all azimuths. Indeed, as the P5+1 consider where to spend their limited leverage in negotiating a combination of constraints on Iran's overt program and transparency about Iran's nuclear activities, it is essential to think clearly about all the paths Iran could take to the bomb and ask how specific terms in a negotiated agreement advance, or alternatively retard, efforts to stop Iran along all such paths.

Our purpose in this paper is to challenge the analytic community to pause and examine the larger questions as carefully as it has analyzed constraints on Iran's declared nuclear facilities.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, and Oren Setter. “Blocking All Paths to an Iranian Bomb: How the West Can Avoid a Nuclear Maginot Line.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2014.