Iran and the Bomb: Always on the Brink
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ominously warned Congress today that Iran was on the brink of acquiring the bomb: “Now time is running out, and the hinge of history may soon turn. For the greatest danger facing humanity could soon be upon us: A militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”
While an Iranian nuclear weapon is certainly nothing to scoff at—Iran’s refusal to address the concerns of the international community and verify the nature of its nuclear program is one of the most serious foreign policy challenges we face—the ticking time bomb scenario isn’t exactly new.
Assessments regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program have varied widely over the years. Salon’s Justin Elliot pointed out last December, “According to various Israeli government predictions over the years, Iran was going to have a bomb by the mid-90s -- or 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, and finally 2010. More recent Israeli predictions have put that date at 2011 or 2014.” Roughly a month after Elliot recounted that timeline, Israel’s former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, said he believed that the Iranians would not be able to make a bomb until 2015, at the earliest. That same month, the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg penned an article where he noted a shift among Israeli defense officials. "I spoke with one of the Israeli officials I quoted in my article last year about the coming confrontation between Israel and Iran, and he put the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran in the next year at less than 20 percent -- and he was one of the Israelis who felt, in the spring of last year, that it would be necessary for Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities by the end of 2011. ‘People have very different opinions inside the defense establishment,' he said, when I reached him, ‘but it's clear to all analysts that the virus and the sanctions are working better than we thought.'"
A recent CNAS report by Marc Lynch similarly notes that, “Although Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon is often presented as a clock counting down as HEU inexorably accumulates, in fact the clock has been reset frequently. Israeli and U.S. officials have declared routinely that Iran is two years away from a weapon over the past 10 years, with the deadline endlessly receding like a Zeno’s paradox. For instance, Israel’s outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan revealed that Israel’s estimate of Iran’s likely date for a nuclear weapon had extended from 2012 to 2015. Similarly, IAEA reports do not indicate linear progression in Iran’s nuclear development, and revise observations about that progress frequently. Indeed, the Obama administration estimates that the Iranian nuclear program has not developed as quickly as expected due to supply chain problems, inferior equipment and technical problems (and not only from the reported effects of the Stuxnet virus).”
While negotiations on the nuclear front do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, there may be an opportunity, given all of the changes happening in the Middle East, to influence Iran’s long-term strategic calculus. Ominously warning that Iran is going to have the bomb any day now does not help achieve that objective.