The AP headlines this story, “Obama says Iran a year away from nuclear weapon.” Read the excerpt below. Is that what he’s saying, or is he saying that it would take them a year to build one if/when they get eventually cracking full-bore on weaponization? Prediction: When 2013 comes and goes without any resolution, diplomatic or military, to Iran’s bomb program, Obama will adopt the latter interpretation of what he said here as proof that he never meant to set a deadline.
Besides, this is a red herring. Netanyahu’s position has always been that, for obvious reasons, the red line can’t be the day that Iran finally has a working bomb. The true red line is when Iran attains “breakout capacity,” i.e. a stockpile of highly-enriched uranium around which a bomb could be built quickly if need be.
“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” he said. “So when I’m consulting with Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) as I have over the last several years on this issue, my message to him will be the same as before: ‘If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution. But if not I continue to keep all options on the table.'”…
“What I have also said is that there is a window, not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically and it is in all of our interests” to do this, he said. “They (Iran) are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community … I do think they are recognizing that there is a severe cost to continue on the path they are on and that there is another door open.”
Just for fun, I went digging through our archives for various expert assessments in the past about how soon it might be before Iran has a bomb. The earliest I found is this Telegraph piece from 2006 citing a think tank who thought an Iranian bomb was “inevitable” (which is likely true) without setting a timeline. A year later, the UN’s nuclear agency concluded that Iran could have a bomb in a year given their installation of 3,000 uranium centrifuges. Another UN report issued a year after that claimed that Iran already had enough uranium to make a bomb but that it hadn’t been enriched to weapons-grade yet. Then, in late 2009, Ehud Barak reportedly told Israeli media that Iran would have the technical capacity to build a bomb within weeks and would likely have a device by 2011.
Skip ahead to August 2012 and Haaretz reported, again via Barak, that the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s bomb progress showed that Tehran was closer than thought. A few weeks later, a think tank alleged that Iran was two to four months away from having the fissile core needed for a warhead (although it would be many months after that before they could build the warhead itself). But then something changed: Barak said Iran had pulled back from the brink of weaponization by using some of its uranium for civilian purposes. A new Israeli intelligence estimate said they wouldn’t have a bomb until 2015 at the earliest. Iran itself announced just last month that it was converting some uranium to reactor fuel, which shrank their potential bomb supply. None of which is to suggest that any of these assessments were necessarily wrong when given. There’s a lot in play here — sabotage efforts by the U.S. and Israel to slow the program down (e.g. Stuxnet), the debilitating effect of sanctions on Iran’s access to nuke materials, Tehran’s fitful, sporadic interest in negotiations, and of course changing strategic calculations in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The point is, either we’ve been BS-ed on the timeline all along, which I doubt, or it’s hard to predict from one year to the next just how much progress Iran will have made 12 months later. Which O is counting on, of course. He’d never let himself get pinned down on a deadline to scramble the jets the way it sounds in the excerpt.
Speaking of changing strategies, read this juicy WaPo piece from a few days ago about the jihadist bromance between Iran and Al Qaeda falling apart as they end up on opposite sides of the sectarian black hole in Syria. Iran’s evidently going all in on behalf of Assad: They’re stepping up their arms supply to Damascus and, per Israel’s chief of military intelligence, they now have 50,000 men — no typo — in Syria, with eventual expansion to 100,000 possible. One would think that would make them more eager to build a bomb ASAP. The bomb is their insurance policy that, even if things go badly in Syria, none of their enemies will dare try to destabilize the regime at home. But maybe it’s not as simple as that. Maybe, between the economic squeeze from sanctions and their massive military investment in the Alawites in Syria, they just don’t have the money at the moment to keep the nuclear program rolling at full speed. Priorities.
Update: I’ve been meaning to post this for a few days but it slipped my mind. Have a look at what Damascus looks like after two years of war. The capital was insulated from the fighting for a good long time after the rebellion broke out. Not anymore.