Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued earlier this year that low-enriched uranium (LEU) might covertly be turned the into weapons grade material – thus attaining so-called “break-out capability.” This, he suggested, could occur without US intelligence becoming aware of such a shift and therefore would risk the US being caught unawares. Secretary Gates has argued that the only solution to this dilemma would be for the US to acquire sufficient leverage over Iran to force it to “give up” most of its LEU – thus eliminating the possibility of Iran having sufficient LEU to “break out.”
This argument harkens back to an old US doctrine that there is essentially no substantive difference between peaceful and weapons-oriented enrichment since, the argument goes, the two paths are technically identical. Of course, if this holds true, Iran by definition is bound to reach “break-out” – just as any state such as Japan that is enriching quantities of LEU will have a technical “break-out” capacity. It goes with the territory of nuclear energy.
But when Mr. Gates uses that other loaded word, “leverage,” we are talking something different. “Leverage” over a state already possessing a reactor and a fuel cycle can only mean threatening Iran with war or robust military containment should its fuel stocks not be duly “relinquished.”
So far, President Obama has refused to endorse a “break out” conditionality as hawks such as Gates are urging on him.
For its part, Iran insists that the long-standing US doctrine of indistinguishability in enrichment is a false one. In the Iranian view, the peaceful use of enrichment can indeed be distinguished from a weapons-dedicated process: One can be safeguarded, whereas the other cannot be.