Iran Will have the Bomb in 5 Years (Again)

Summary:  We see another round of news about Iran getting the bomb.  Just as they would have the bomb in a few years — ever since 1992.  Of course, all these threats to bomb Iran probably only increase their interest in getting the bomb.  A perfect example of American geopolitical strategy, ensuring what we’re trying to prevent.

An amazing characteristic of many US journalists is their amnesia, writing news as if the past never happened.  Today’s example is “Coming Around On Iran“, Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, 15 January 2010 — Excerpt:

“Three U.S. and two foreign counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK that, as soon as next month, the intel agencies are expected to complete an ‘update’ to their controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran ‘halted its nuclear weapons program’ in 2003 and ‘had not restarted’ it as of mid-2007.”

This is hot news, just as it was in 1992, 2006 and 2009.  And will be next year.

The point is not that Iran’s bomb projects are not serious, nor of concern to us.  But rather a more serious problem is our willingness to accept the flimsiest propaganda, even to the extent of forgetting the last ten rounds of exaggerations and outright lies.  Our weaknesses might be the greatest threat to the Republic.  We can and must do better, which will drive our institutions (e.g., government and press) to higher standards.

Here are flashbacks to 1984, 1992 and 2009, then links to more information about predictions about the bomb.  An easier cure for amnesia than a knock on the head.

Flashback to 1984

The Iranians may have an atom bomb within 2 years, the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly warned.  That was in 1984, two decades ago.  Four years later, the world was again put on notice, this time by Iraq, that Tehran was at the nuclear threshold, and in 1992 the CIA foresaw atomic arms in Iranian hands by 2000.  Then U.S. officials pushed that back to 2003.  And in 1997 the Israelis confidently predicted a new date — 2005.

— “Ever a ‘threat,’ never an atomic power, Iran points up challenges of nuclear technology“, AP, 27 February 2007 (red emphasis added)

Flashback to 1992

Bad Intelligence – But in Which Direction?“, Justin Logan, Cato, 24 August 2006 — Hat tip to Matthew Yglesias.

Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger {NYT, WaPo} at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is–and in which direction it’s been wrong.

Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat. Here are just a few assessments:

  • “Late 1991:  In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of 2 to 3 nuclear weapons.’ A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these 2 or 3 nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”
  • “February 24, 1993:  CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”
  • “January 1995:  The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”
  • “January 5, 1995:  U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”
  • “April 29, 1996:  Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”
  • “October 21, 1998:  General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years. ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”
  • “January 17, 2000:  A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons. The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

It goes on for 4 pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure. But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran’s capability. Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.

Flashback to 2009

U.S. now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bomb“, Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2009 — “In a reversal since a 2007 report, U.S. officials expect the Islamic Republic to reach development milestones this year.”

Needless to say, 11 months later we have no public evidence of significant development milestones achieved in 2009.  Worse, this story was obvious propaganda even when published — as I show with much detail in Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice? (16 February 2009).

A history of flawed predictions about atomic weapons

For more information about the history of forecasting our enemies atomic weapon programs, see these books.

  • Red Cloud at Dawn -Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (2009) by Michael D. Gordin (Assc Prof, History, Princeton) – Review here at the New York Times.
  • Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea by Jeffrey T. Richelson, 702 pp (2006) — I esp recommend reading this excellent review (essentially a stand-alone analysis):  “The Secrets of the Bomb“, Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books, 25 May 2006

Of course there were some accurate predictions as to when the USSR would get the bomb.  Such as…

How long, we may ask, is it likely that this advantage will rest with the United States? In the Debate on the Address I hazarded the estimate that it would be three or four years. According to the best information I have been able to obtain, I see no reason to alter that estimate, and certainly none to diminish it … — Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons on 7 November 1945 (source: Hansard website of debates in Parliament)

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.