Iran 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb?

Sources familiar with the National Intelligence Estimate claim that Iran is ten years away from the ability to make a nuclear weapon.

Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb (WaPo, A1)

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. President Bush has said that he wants the crisis resolved diplomatically but that “all options are on the table.”

The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran’s military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program. What is clear is that Iran, mostly through its energy program, is acquiring and mastering technologies that could be diverted to bombmaking.

The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran’s ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal, three U.S. sources said. Still, a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that “it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons.”

At no time in the past three years has the White House attributed its assertions about Iran to U.S. intelligence, as it did about Iraq in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion. Instead, it has pointed to years of Iranian concealment and questioned why a country with as much oil as Iran would require a large-scale nuclear energy program.

The NIE addresses those assertions and offers alternative views supporting and challenging the assumptions they are based on. Those familiar with the new judgments, which have not been previously detailed, would discuss only limited elements of the estimate and only on the condition of anonymity, because the report is classified, as is some of the evidence on which it is based.

Kevin Drum notes that this seems to further weaken the credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies. Ogged thinks this is more about being cautious in light of the Iraq debacle. More likely, it seems to me, it is a reflection on the leakers.

As OTB’s roving correspondent Richard Gardner points out, “[T]he USA with little theoretical knowledge in 1942, managed to get a bomb in 3 years. But these Iranians, with all the theory known, and having worked on it for a decade, will take another decade, despite modern advances in metallurgy and computing over 60 years. Not to mention instrumentation, integrated circuits, etc.” He continues, “Enriching U isn’t that tough these days if you have enough electricity. Nor is making Pu, if your reactors aren’t subject to inspection (Iran’s sort-of are). However, getting the bomb on target is a tougher problem (insert rocket science joke here) if you are looking at a responsive weapon (vice a bomb in a shipping container).”

Quite so. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine a determined country with a few billions of dollars to spend more than a couple years away from a bomb. A decade? Hardly.

Update: Lots of commentary on this one. Notably:

Steven Taylor: “[M]y fundamental assumption is that the Iranians are pursuing a nuclear weapon and will continue to do so until they obtain one and that while it may be possible to slow them down, I find it highly unlikely, short of massive military action, that anyone will be able to stop them from so doing.”

Roger L. Simon: “A U. S. source!? They actually printed that with a straight face. (I assume they did anyway.) What, pray tell, is a “U. S. source”? I guess they mean someone in the government, but it could just as well be your Aunt Fanny in Nome, Alaska. And they say bloggers don’t have editors!”

McQ: “. . . Iran has not only the Shahab 3, but also the Shahab-4, both of which are modifications of the North Korean No-Dong missile. Iran has been in close contact with North Korea, which seems to have been ignored in this report. To pretend that NoKo, widely believed to have already developed and produced nuclear weapons, is only sharing MRBM knowledge (with its vital need for cash and other commodities) with Iran seems rather naive.”

Red State’s “Nick Danger” finds it “[A]mazing, that top-secret material that appears to damage the Administration should once again fall into the hands of the Washington Post.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    Considering that our guys didn’t spot India’s program until they lit one off I am now very, very worried.

  2. Jim Durbin says:

    I wrote a post this morning (and promptly lost it on Typepad) wondering if this is just the Post playing with headlines or a serious matter. It seems to be a bit of both.
    10 years? If that’s what our intelligence agencies are saying then it’s time to fire all of them and start over. The only way to come to that conclusion is drawing a line of how far teh Iranians have come in developing the bomb, and then assuming the snail’s pace will continue.

    But intelligence briefings aren’t written without a lot of wiggle room. I bet dollars to donuts the sentence saying 10 years out is just one sentence with a lot “if” clauses attached. The article from the Post even admits there is a lot of hedging going on.

    It is disturbing that the report can’t be taken seriously, but what do you expect from the Post? the author says the report will lead towards solving the Iran crisis with diplomacy 0 which sounds suspiciously like a policy decision and not an intelligence estimate.

    The biggest question facing supporters of this report (including those who will quote from it for the next five years), is what price they are willing to pay if they are wrong.

    The question for Democrats is; If Iran does have a bomb, are they willing to go in and take it away, or will they accept it as a fait accompli? If you’re not prepared to do anything about an Iranian nuclear program regardless of the accuracy of the report, then how can anyone seriously expect to follow their lead in national security matters? We did that with North Korea – are we willing to do it with Iran?

  3. anjin-san says:

    Yes but thank goodness Bush saved us from Saddam’s WMD…

    It would almost be funny were it not so scary and tragic.

  4. McGehee says:

    …the North Korean No-Dong missile.

    Now, granted I’ve had a really crazy day, but that makes me snicker.

    It makes me snicker a lot.