Every three months, approximately, the International Atomic Energy Agency releases a report on Iran’s nuclear program. The media summarizes the technical details — the latest levels of enrichment, kilograms of enriched uranium hexafluoride, numbers of installed centrifuges — but misses the true meaning of these figures. Those numbers, if analyzed, convey how much time Iran would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, and how much that “breakout window” could shrink in the near future. That information is critical — but currently not easily available — to policymakers or the public, even as they debate what to do about Iran’s continuing nuclear progress.
Three administrations, from both parties, have declared it unacceptable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. President Barack Obama has made abundantly clear that his policy is to “prevent, not contain” a nuclear Iran. He and members of this administration have repeatedly pledged to use “all elements of American power” in pursuit of that objective. But an effective policy cannot be designed without reference to time.
In choosing tools to pressure Iran’s leadership to give up its military nuclear ambitions, an important consideration must be how long those measures will require to take effect; will it be before, or after, Iran has developed a nuclear weapons capability? No matter how effective, policies that take too long to yield results cannot meet the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.