This article was published in collaboration with Slate.
For better or worse—and probably for worse—negotiations to peacefully resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program may hinge on a single technical term: “breakout capacity.”
“Breakout capacity” refers to the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, should Iran at some point decide to build one. The term isn’t formally part of the negotiations that resumed in Vienna this week between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). Rather, negotiators discuss things like how many centrifuges Iran should be allowed to keep as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program. But back in Washington, when people in Congress and elsewhere argue over what constitutes an acceptable deal, they talk in terms of breakout: How much breakout capacity would Iran have if left with a given number of centrifuges, or a given amount of some other variable under negotiation?
It’s a valid question. All the more unfortunate, then, that so many people—including politicians, pundits, and policy analysts—are so confused about it.