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 Yet the authors do not cite any source or evidence for this estimate.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.]