Yet Another Estimate of When Iran Will Have the Bomb

by Kevin Jon Heller

McClatchy reports that Israel now believes Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016.  That is progress of a sort; Netanyahu had previously been claiming that Iran would have the bomb no later than late summer 2013 — around six months from now.  But Israel is still insisting that Iran is only two or three years away from nuclear capability, so I think it is useful to recall and update the timeline I mentioned early last year of breathless Israeli and Western claims about Iran’s nuclear program:

1984: West German intelligence sources claim that Iran’s production of a bomb “is entering its final stages.” US Senator Alan Cranston claims Iran is seven years away from making a weapon.

1992: Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells the Knesset that Iran is 3 to 5 years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

1995: The New York Times reports that US and Israeli officials fear “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought” – less than five years away.  Netanyahu claims the time frame is three to five years.

1996: Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres claims Iran will have nuclear weapons in four years.

1998: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claims Iran could build an ICBM capable of reaching the US within five years.

1999: An Israeli military official claims that Iran will have a nuclear weapon within five years.

2001: The Israeli Minister of Defence claims that Iran will be ready to launch a nuclear weapon in less than four years.

2002: The CIA warns that the danger of nuclear weapons from Iran is higher than during the Cold War, because its missile capability has grown more quickly than expected since 2000 – putting it on par with North Korea.

2003: A high-ranking Israeli military officer tells the Knesset that Iran will have the bomb by 2005 — 17 months away.

2006: A State Department official claims that Iran may be capable of building a nuclear weapon in 16 days.

2008: An Israeli general tells the Cabinet that Iran is “half-way” to enriching enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon and will have a working weapon no later than the end of 2010.

2009: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak estimates that Iran is 6-18 months away from building an operative nuclear weapon.

2010: Israeli decision-makers believe that Iran is at most 1-3 years away from being able to assemble a nuclear weapon.

2011: An IAEA report indicates that Iran could build a nuclear weapon within months.

2013: Israeli intelligence officials claim that Iran could have the bomb by 2015 or 2016.

The McClatchy articles quotes an Israeli intelligence officer as asking “Did we cry wolf too early?” That’s amusing: Israel (and the West) have been crying wolf over Iran’s nuclear capability for nearly three decades.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/01/28/yet-another-estimate-of-when-iran-will-have-the-bomb/

10 Responses

  1. As a former intelligence officer, I don’t get your point at all. Yes gathering intelligence is complicated and not always accurate – is that the point? That’s a fact, that we all know and do take to heart, but we have nothing else to base our knowledge on but intelligence reports, as Iran has not done a single thing to appease the international community or the IAEA. We can very well wake up tomorrow to a second Libya, where a secret nuclear weapons program was built under our noses. Can you really be sure that Iran isn’t working in full swing towards acquiring such a weapon? Can you really say that they are only aiming at developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes. There are increasing reports of secret programs to build ballistic heads with nuclear capabilities as well as more and more of these atomic facilities that are mushrooming underground to enrich uranium or plutonium or god knows what. Not to mention monkies getting flown to outerspace all for the purpose of scaring the west.

    Add to that the fact that Israel and the United States and Europe are working hard every day to delay the Iranian program – running secret coveted operations in Iran (just the other day another facility mysteriously exploded) and elsewhere (the disappearances of Iranian nuclear scientists), not to mention cyber warfare which is also playing a key role here – so yes the end time gets delayed too.

    Basically what I’m saying is – that we can’t be sure if and when Iran will acquire the bomb and it is in Israel’s best interest to keep crying wolf incisively – so that the world would continue to react, so that we don’t find ourselves surprised. Furthermore, the NPT regime is collapsing before our very eyes and as international lawyers discussing this issue in one of the biggest international law blogs on the internet I would expect us to focus our discussion more on how we can work together to strengthen the mechanisms and institutions in existence, rather than simply making random lists of quotes which serve no one.

  2. Actually, the list is incredibly important.  It serves as a reminder that Israel has cynically exploited fear of Iranian nuclear weapons literally for decades in order to rationalize its own militaristic foreign policy.  Indeed, complaints about the NPT regime “collapsing” ring more than a bit hollow in light of Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT treaty, given that its own nuclear capability is one of the world’s worst-kept secrets.  If all parties are committed to working together to strengthen the NPT regime, a good first step would be for Israel to acknowledge its nuclear weapons program, sign the NPT treaty, and allow UN inspectors into the country.  Once it does that, we can take its annual prediction that Iran is months away from a nuclear arsenal more seriously.

  3. Actually, the list is incredibly important.  It serves as a reminder that Israel has cynically exploited fear of Iranian nuclear weapons literally for decades in order to rationalize its own militaristic foreign policy.  Indeed, complaints about the NPT regime “collapsing” ring more than a bit hollow in light of Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT treaty; its own nuclear capability is one of the world’s worst-kept secrets.  If all parties need to work together to strengthen the NPT regime, a good first step would be — as recently demanded by the UNGA by a vote of 174-6 — for Israel to acknowledge its nuclear weapons program, sign the NPT treaty, and allow UN inspectors into the country.  Once it does that, we can take its complaints about Iran’s supposed nuclear-weapons program more seriously.

  4. PS. Although I don’t always agree with its methods or its goals, I have nothing but respect for the Mossad’s intelligence abilities.  I find it inconceivable that Israel’s endless Chicken Little routine has always been based solely on the lastest and best Mossad intelligence. We Americans know a little something about how political leaders ignore and misuse intelligence for their own purposes.

  5. merci!

  6. Kevin: I think that you miss Asaf’s implicit point — that we should be objective with respect to Iran’s violation of UN Security Council resolutions and its failure to implement the NPT in good faith by allowing the IAEA access to its secret nuclear labs, production, and storage sites. Iran is a party to the NPT and the U.N. Charter and should adhere to its international legal obligations. Its failure to adhere to these obligations is part of the dangerous context. Yes, Israel could openly admit that it has nuclear weapons.

  7. Jordan,
    You might look at the recent series of posts by Daniel Joyner (the latest in response to the Jordan Paust piece at Jurist as well as two others linked to in the post itself) and Yousaf Butt (January 22) at the Arms Control Law blog on whether or not Iran is fulfilling its international legal obligations. The “dangerous context” is rather the Iranophobia and irrational hysteria (often as warmongering) that surrounds the question of Iran and nuclear weapons. The search for objectivity has to date remained rather elusive. As Kevin points out, Israel’s nuclear regime has never faced comparable scrutiny (yes, I know, it is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and we have sufficient reason to be more alarmed about nuclear weapons that exist in this case, than those that don’t. At least that’s one lesson we might learn from Zeev Maoz’s discussion of Israel’s nuclear policy in Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy (2009): “Israel’s nuclear policy has had a set of adverse side effects [among other things, it helped ignite a massive arms race in the region], the magnitude of which is only now becoming clear in the light of developments during the last decade in the Middle East.”

  8. I agree entirely with Kevin’s response to Asaf’s comment. Kevin touches on several important and related issues. Yes, intelligence is an art and not a science, but looking at this list of allegations and estimates over the years, its clear that the problem hasnt just been imperfections in intelligence accuracy – although of course that’s a lesson in itself with regard to current allegations against Iran – but rather that intelligence assessments are in fact used as a tool to whip up undue fear and frenzy in the interest of foreign policy goals. This is a grand tradition carried on today by governments as well as by their effective proxies in the ostensible private scientific community – David Albright and the ISIS being the chief offenders here in the US.
     I also appreciate Patrick’s plug of my work over at http://www.armscontrollaw.com where I do pretty much spend my life writing on these issues.

  9. Kevin,
    All very fine of the General Assembly to call on Israel to join the NPT with such overwhelming numbers, but there are some problems with this: Israel cannot join as a nuclear weapon State since under article IX(3) of the NPT it would have had to have manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or device prior to 1967 and as far as I know this was not the case; if it were to join it would have to become a non-nuclear weapon State and give up all its nuclear weapons. General Assembly Resolution A/RES/67/73 does indeed call upon Israel to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons.
    What a fine suggestion to make to a country surrounded by quite a number of others not altogether friendly in mindset! If even that is not a consideration, why not ask all nuclear weapon States (whether party or no) to give up their nuclear weapons? After all, apparently, there is simply no justification for any country to possess nuclear weapons. In the end one should realize that the NPT’s regime has just been an arbitrary choice in 1968 to limit possession to those States that had the weapons already before 1967. Those States declining to become a party to the NPT may (justifiably) have different thoughts on that choice.

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