Evidence, Please

By Daniel Luban

Following up on Jim’s post about the new Robb/Coats/Wald op-ed pushing preparations for a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, one line from the piece jumped out at me: “At its current pace, Iran’s nuclear program will be able to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2010.”

This is a critical claim for the authors’ argument. Although they gloss over the fact that Iran would not be able to immediately produce a usable bomb even after acquiring enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) — for that, it would need a weapons program, and there is no evidence that Iran has had one since 2003 — the 2010 HEU estimate naturally supports their contention that there is no time to waste in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Yet the authors do not cite any source or evidence for this estimate.

Which may not be surprising, since it directly contradicts the U.S. government’s latest intelligence on the subject. As I reported last month, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair told Congress in February that Iran is unlikely to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon until at least 2013 — a full three years after Robb et al’s estimate. Citing the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), Blair also noted that there is “no evidence” that Iran has even made a decision to produce weapons-grade uranium in the first place.

Although Robb et al give no indication of where they got their 2010 estimate, the “one year” estimate echoes an earlier report that appeared in August in the Times of London. The Times story claimed, on the say-so of “Western intelligence sources,” that Iran “could feasibly make a bomb within a year of an order from its Supreme Leader…it would take six months to enrich enough uranium and another six months to assemble the warhead.” Although virtually no intelligence analysts take the one year estimate seriously, it quickly went into circulation in the U.S. media, getting dutifully repeated on television by the likes of Greta Van Susteren and John Bolton. Soon after, Ha’aretz reported that the estimate appeared to be leaked by Israeli intelligence, and that the “timing of the articles implies that someone in Israel’s defence establishment wanted to deliver an explicit, public declaration” to Western media. It seems more than likely that Robb et al are serving as mouthpieces for similarly suspect Israeli intelligence.

It is understandable why the BPC team is propagating these alarmist estimates. The knowledge that an Iranian bomb is at a minimum several years away might lead policymakers to step back, take a deep breath, and rationally examine the costs and benefits of a war with Iran — at which point the odds of a U.S. military strike coming to pass become virtually nil. Still, Robb, Coats, and Wald might want to clarify where they’re getting their information.

[Cross-posted in modified form on The Faster Times.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. last week alone I read reports from El Baredei that Iran had no weapons program, and then that there was no way to know. This may be selective reporting, or the inability to prove a negative. Clearly war is breaking this country.

    I received death threats and was told to Shut Up by people who were mourning the loss of a soldier who died for my freedom. I couldn’t help but reply that no Afghan, no Iraqi ever threatened me, or told me to shut up. That just earned me more threats and more attempts to silence me. I suggested they were misdirecting their anger at me, rather they should be angry at the civilian leaders who sent their fallen hero to die for lies and no good reason.

    On that note, Col. Wilkerson has a great interview on the FFF blog that I found thanks to Antiwar.com. Oops, I revealed my bias, I don’t like war. It seems to me we get into many unforeseeable snafus that prove senseless and waste lives and money.

    Col. Wilkerson interview http://www.fff.org/comment/com0908m.asp

  2. Is Israel trying to maneuver the US into striking Iran? Anybody have sources in Israel that have something to say about this? I am confident Obama will never initiate military action against Iran. Is Israel playing a game of chicken or will they attack Iran once they see they can’t get Obama to do it for them?

  3. Check out today’s NYT article, “U.S. Says Iran Could Expedite Nuclear Bomb.” Pressure continues to build on the Israeli side (and among the Israeli fifth column here in the US) to do something, i.e., hit the Iranian nuclear facilities. If it happens, it will show just how much the U.S. dog can be wagged by the Israeli tail.

    When Iran gets the bomb, will US — repeat, US — security be jeopardized? Will our thousands of warheads no longer be a deterrent?

  4. Yes interesting but should you be surprised? Remember what happened to Hans Blix and his reports on the Iraqi WMDs? I am sure that the world will witness similar Iraqi story unfolding leading to the short sharp shock of shock and awe and mission will be accomplished very quickly as in Iraq. I know history repeats itself – but never realised it can happen so soon! Who will be the villain in the final analysis this time round when no nuclear weapons are found? Would Ahmadinijad be the next Saddam or is it Ali Khameni? Who ever it is, I am sure the world will be a better place following the fall of the selected personality; in the same way as we are now.

  5. I’m confident that if the US does have a war with Iran and kill a bunch of people to stop a non-existent nuclear weapon, in a few years, the same process will demonize some other country, leading to a massacre by US bombs there, etc., ad infinitum.

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