Nuclear Iran 5-14 Years Away?
The NYT has a big story out today entitled, “Analysts Say a Nuclear Iran Is Years Away.” It clearly is intended to counter the claims yesterday by a high ranking State Department official that Iran could have materials to make a bomb in 16 (now, 15) days.
Western nuclear analysts said yesterday that Tehran lacked the skills, materials and equipment to make good on its immediate nuclear ambitions, even as a senior Iranian official said Iran would defy international pressure and rapidly expand its ability to enrich uranium for fuel. The official, Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, said Iran would push quickly to put 54,000 centrifuges on line — a vast increase from the 164 the Iranians said Tuesday that they had used to enrich uranium to levels that could fuel a nuclear reactor.
Still, nuclear analysts called the claims exaggerated. They said nothing had changed to alter current estimates of when Iran might be able to make a single nuclear weapon, assuming that is its ultimate goal. The United States government has put that at 5 to 10 years, and some analysts have said it could come as late as 2020.
John Aravosis, Pachacutec, David Swanson, Oliver Willis, and others on the left are seizing on this meme (mostly settling on the TEN YEARS figure from the National Intelligence Estimate) to argue that we have plenty of time to formulate an Iran policy. Indeed, enough to wait until someone other than Bush is president.
I wonder why Arvosis and company are suddenly so confident in the predictive powers of our intelligence apparatus? The same people who got it wrong on Iraq’s WMD, were totally surprised when North Korea went nuclear, missed the signs pointing to 9/11, and totally did not see the end of the Cold War coming are now infallible? [Update: This is not so much a criticism of the IC but a recognition of the incredibly difficult nature of the enterprise. Getting it wrong a significant percentage of the time, sometimes spectacularly so, is inevitable.]
While I am admittedly no expert in nuclear physics, let alone privy to the raw intelligence and corps of expert analysts that those responsible for making these decisions have, my strong guess is that five years is a much more likely planning figure than fifteen days. Still, given that virtually everybody agrees that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable, wouldn’t erring on the side of believing Iran’s hype be more sane than pushing all our chips in on the idea that we have TEN YEARS?
Arvosis ends his post, which is a set of proposed Democratic talking points on Iran, with a legitimate question:
Why is it always us?
If Iran is such a threat, then why not let the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese take care of it? Clearly none of those countries wants a nuclear Iran on their back porch. So why is it always America that has to give our money, our soldiers’ lives, and our goodwill?
In principle, I agree. The fact of the matter, though, is that the United States has become The World’s Last Remaining SuperpowerTM and, as Peter Parker learned the hard way, with great power comes great responsibility.
The Russians and Chinese are nuclear powers but not exactly world class militaries. Neither has shown any recent willingness to take on any obligations outside their immediate region. The Europeans, with the partial exception of the United Kingdom, have let their militaries atrophy to the point that they simply lack the ability to project power. The Israelis could do something, I suppose, and may even do it on their own if we wait around too long for their tastes. But that has its own set of problems.
If the United States acts, presuming we let the present diplomatic course run out, we will do it with many allies. Certainly the UK, Canada, and Australia will participate. Most likely, NATO generally will throw in, too. The French and Germans have definitely signaled their willingness. But, like it or not, if the US is not in, those countries are unlikely to do anything. They wouldn’t even act when the former Yugoslavia was breaking up in their own backyard and creating a major refugee problem. They’re certainly not going to get embroiled in a potential Middle East nightmare on their own.