Thursday, April 13, 2006

Arguing over Iran's timeline 

This is an extended, rambling update to this post, in which I fretted about Iran's announcement that it would have 3000 centrifuges up and running by the end of the year, and wondered if that shortened the "worst case" estimates for Iran to develop an atomic bomb. I linked therein to my article about a "roundtable discussion" at Princeton University on March 31, in which one of the professors at the Woodrow Wilson School argued that 2009 was the best estimate of the earliest date that Iran could build such a weapon.

Since Tuesday's post I have corresponded with Professor von Hippel, who still believes that 2009 is the best estimate of the earliest mullah bomb. He agreed that 3000 functional centrifuges could generate more than enough fissile material for a bomb in a year if configured to do so, but he doesn't think that Iran can build them nearly that fast.

It may be that Professor von Hippel has not changed his estimate because it turns out that Iran's stated goal of running 3000 centrifuges by the end of this year is actually not new news. The Arms Control Wonk wrote a post on March 25 that referred to this goal, and had his own thoughts about the implications for the timeline:
The 2008 worst-case estimate described in the Knight-Ridder piece is about a year ahead of David Albright and Corey Hinderstein's.

It seems likely that this accelerated timeline has its roots in ElBaradei's last report to the IAEA BoG, which says that Iran plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in the Natanz FEP beginning late this year. That is about twice the number of centrifuges ISIS says Iran needs for producing enough HEU for a weapon within a year.

So if we take Iran's claim at face value, Natanz will have more cascades operating by 2007 than the ISIS timeline posits.

See also Thursday morning's Belgravia Dispatch, in which Greg Djerejian writes:
[I]t's not five minutes to midnight... I do not see a responsible use of military power before 2009, meaning a strictly necessary one, unless there is a secret (meaning, you know, secret, secret) program the Iranians have fast-tracked, and we have unimpeachable evidence of same, meaning their ability to wield a nuclear weapon within 1000 or so days. I don't see it, and have yet to see any responsible intelligence analyst argue otherwise.

When Djerejian writes about "responsible" intelligence analysts, he is probably referring to the people who crafted European estimates or the American National Intelligence Estimate, which puts the probable date at roughly 2015. True enough, but may I offer the friendly observation that plenty of sober outsiders, including those linked by Arms Control Wonk and Princeton's von Hippel, neither of whom exhibit any desire, intense or otherwise, to attack Iran, have "worst case" timelines for the first mullah bomb in 2009, putting us just within Djerejian's thousand-day window today.

The trouble with much of the public and, presumably, officially secret argument over the timeline is that it is suffused with promotion for or opposition to military action to interdict Iran's bomb program. Hawks promote short dates because they are worried that the next administration may not have the courage to act. Given the Clinton administration's policy of unrequited apology and unwillingness to retaliate for Khobar Towers, hawks are not being paranoid in worrying about this. Doves, who have persuaded themselves that the White House is a rogue operation that interrupts planning for the third-term coup only long enough to invade Muslim countries, are incredibly eager to declare that there is all the time in the world to deal with Iran. The National Intelligence Estimate, different editions of which materially underestimated and then overestimated Iraq's WMD programs, is now every dove's totem. The New York Times is running a front-page story this morning that looks for all the world like an explicit effort to declare that there is no risk until well beyond the administration of George W. Bush. The third 'graph is so laughable as to harm the credibility of the entire story:
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.

Who are these anonymous "some analysts" who think that Iran may not be able to build a bomb until 2020? Are they so afraid of "Rethug" brownshirts that they are unwilling to go on the record? Or are they are afraid of being laughed at? Or maybe the New York Times just conjured them up. Not surprisingly, there is no offsetting acknowledgment that there are plenty of non-Bushie, non-Israeli analysts who accept a "worse case" of 2009.

I am far from persuaded that overt military action against Iran's nuclear program would not be folly. However, if we are going to deal with this problem seriously we have to stop spinning the analysis because of our fear of or ambition for a military remedy before the end of the Bush administration. Yes, the Bush administration should bluff away, whether the target of the bluff is the government of Iran or some other audience, and those of us who follow such matters should have the maturity to acknowledge that bluff and misdirection now may in the end diminish the likelihood of war. Ultimately, though, intelligence and defense analysts, journalists, respectible public intellectuals, and principled amateur bloggers should examine the question of Iran's capabilities independently of their desire for a particular remedy. Those that do so should acknowledge that (i) Iran's motives are complex, and not rooted in the rantings of any one man, include its barking moonbat of a president, (ii) Iran is given to bragging on its accomplishments in weapons development, atomic or otherwise, because self-sufficiency in military affairs has been a national obsession since the Iran-Iraq war (during which its Shah-era American weapons stopped working for lack of spare parts), (iii) experience tells us that expert analysis and national intelligence estimates are as likely to underestimate or overestimate a covert WMD program as describe it accurately, and (iv) "threat inflation" may serve American diplomatic efforts and thereby reduce the future requirement for war, or it may strengthen the hardliners in Iran by compounding the Iranian security dilemma. We just do not know.


By Blogger Dave, at Thu Apr 13, 12:41:00 PM:

A brief historical fact that many seem to overlook...the Manhattan Project took only 4 years to build an atomic bomb...and that was in the early 1940s. The knowledge is out there. Given the total failure of the Europeans to get Iran to moderate its existing nuclear program, exactly what do isolationist think is going to change in the next few years that will slow down Iran? The same type of "diplomacy" that was employed against No. Korea?
Unfortunately I think there is a very vocal segment of the Democratic party that hates Bush so much they would unwittingly trade nuclear weapons in Iran for a Democratic Congress and White House.  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Thu Apr 13, 02:54:00 PM:

First of all, TH, I do appreciate your call for looking at the facts in an objective manner and not in a way that promotes one goal or another, and I also agree that really we just don't know. The ratio of conjecture to actual knowledge of the Iranian program is reaching early 2003 Iraq levels, and we all know how that turned out. That frightens some people because it is not at all clear that the administration has learned anything from it and may well get us into a conflict with Iran that would make Iraq look like a Girl Scout picnic.

Dave said, "exactly what do isolationist think is going to change in the next few years that will slow down Iran? The same type of "diplomacy" that was employed against No. Korea?"

Well first of all, Dave, people who think diplomacy is a preferable way forward ought not to be labeled "isolationists," Secondly, the type of diplomacy that was used with Libya would perhaps be a better model. The Libyan deal was probably this adminsitration's finest accomplishment in terms of foreign affairs and security. Why not use what works?

Secondly, Dave, "Unfortunately I think there is a very vocal segment of the Democratic party that hates Bush so much they would unwittingly trade nuclear weapons in Iran for a Democratic Congress and White House."

While I don't deny that there is a vocal segment of the Democratic party that hates Bush quite a bit, I fail to see how there is a trade off between a nuclear-armed Iran and a Democratic Adminstration. It is not as though Republicans have shown themselves any more capable of dealing with the problem than Democrats  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Apr 13, 04:50:00 PM:

Well, the "Republicans" still have three years left to run at a minimum, don't they?

As to the post itself, its an excellent summation of the "build it yourself at home in your spare time win big money and swell prizes" approach to the issue.

There is, however, the continuing option of lease/purchase on the Axis of Evil market. In that case, it moves from years to days/weeks.  

By Blogger Dave, at Thu Apr 13, 05:06:00 PM:

I should have been more specific...for some "diplomacy" is the only alternative they are willing to consider. This usually simply entails working out the right kind of economic bribe sufficient to get the object of the negotiation to act responsibly. I tend to think that the fact that Britian, France and Germany have already given up on the diplomacy angle as a 2.5 year waste of time in getting Iran to change course suggests that those still pushing diplomacy as the preferred option really refuse to acknowlege force may be the only avenue left to avoid a nuclear armed Iran. Hence the term "isolationist". Libya abandoned its nuclear aspirations in response to US military action against Afganistan and Iraq. I don't suggest there is a necessary trade off between the democrats and a nuclear powered Iran...yet we have already heard how some vocal minorities want to use the Iran issue as a campaign point to put Dems in office. I am far more likely to vote for a Democrat who adopts a realist view of Iran and is willing, if necessary, to take military action before it is too late. Dems that seek office by arguing for endless diplomacy with no military option being acceptable may win office and then have to deal with a nuclear armed Iran as a consequence.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Thu Apr 13, 06:17:00 PM:

I don't want to invoke the boy-who-cried-WMDs rule, but isn't it a funny coincidence how Arab nations' WMD programs always become serious right before midterm elections?

I use the term: "fear-mongering", but "threat-inflation" is a fine descriptor too. Today's conservatives can't demonize Iraqis or even Bin Laden because they've had years to address those issues and don't have sufficient results for the American voters. The "gay-marriage-destroys-families" whipping boy was let go after the 2004 elections. So what's left to strike fear in the hearts of swing voters? Barring another terrorist strike, we're left with illegal immigrants and genocidal Iranians. I expect conservatives of all stripes to get riled up about one or the other in the next 8 months.

If Iran’s bomb is coming in 2009, we have years to plan for it. We should plan for it and are planning for it. If there is a case to be made for an Iranian military engagement, it will still be there in December. (and maybe by then our intel or diplomacy efforts will yield something substantive) I’ll wait to see and what fraction of conservatives still promote the intervention after elections.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Thu Apr 13, 07:19:00 PM:

How exactly are you planning for it, LB? Hoping the French will cut off the supply of croissant?

Seriously, "planning" that excludes the credible threat of force is a farce. North Korea certainly proved that, and as Steyn pointed out, we've given Iran no reason to think differently.

2009 is not far away at all, but why should we trust intelligence that indicates they are 4 or 5 years away? Why not listen to what the Iranians keep telling us every chance they get: they are working feverishly towards nuclear capability, and will use it once they have it. Why are we so reluctant to believe what they are telling us?  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Thu Apr 13, 08:35:00 PM:

They are telling us they are working feverishly towards a nuclear capability, which is NOT the same as a nuclear WEAPONS capability. And let's not forget one thing about Iran. Their President may be a mild mannered and ultimately disappointing reformer or he may be barking mad millenarian who expects the world to end very soon and won't be disappointed, but the real power in Iran still starts with a white beard and ends with a black turban. No less than Ali Khameni himself has declared nuclear weapons un-Islamic.

Before we go any further, can we please abandon the notion that the Libya deal was an effect of the Iraq invasion? It's a weak retroactive defense for the Iraq war. Khadafi had been in negotaions and taking concrete steps to change Libya's relationship with the world long before Saddam got rolled. And really, what's the logic that one had anything to do with the other? Was he afraid it was going to hapen to him too? Were we going to invade Libya? With what army, the one busy occupying Iraq or the one busy occupying Afghanistan? Don't sell the diplomats who worked hard on the Libya deal short like that. They did a great job and it is a model to be duplicated. We got what we wanted by giving Khadafi what he wanted. Normalized relations. Why don't we see if Iran wants a similar deal? It's the sort of concession that only the US can make. Honestly, what can Britain, France and Germany going to offer Iran that they actually want? Also, in this case no military option IS, in reality, viable, and if you disagree, I challenge you to come up with one.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Apr 13, 09:14:00 PM:

Shochu John -

There is no doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Even knowledgable doves do not deny it. The reason is that if their purpose is power generation there are many, many less provocative technologies to get to that end than those pursued by Iran. Now, it may well be that Iran will operate only within its legal rights, and not actually assemble a final weapon. But they will put themselves in the position to assemble one on extremely short notice, and that is geopolitically very similar to building one.

Vanderleun - agreed that Iran might buy a weapon rather than build it. Indeed, it may already have one, but hasn't revealed it because it knows that to do so would justify a strong Western response. Point is, though, the remedy of airstrikes does not do anything about the bought bomb, which would be locked away in some very deep, very secret place.  

By Blogger Final Historian, at Thu Apr 13, 09:35:00 PM:

"Before we go any further, can we please abandon the notion that the Libya deal was an effect of the Iraq invasion? "

Back that up with serious facts. Everyone I have seen has been to the contrary.

"We got what we wanted by giving Khadafi what he wanted. Normalized relations. Why don't we see if Iran wants a similar deal? It's the sort of concession that only the US can make. Honestly, what can Britain, France and Germany going to offer Iran that they actually want?"

Do you think that "Normalized Relations" are something that Iran wants enough to give up its nuclear program? Really, truly believe that?

I hope not.

Iran wants the bomb, and is going to get it unless one of three things happens:

1) They are convinced that getting the bomb is not worth the cost.

2) The regime changes in some way thar results in the new leadership deciding a nuclear bomb isn't worthwhile.

3) They are forcibly prevented from getting the bomb.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Apr 13, 11:11:00 PM:

On the question of the reasons for Libya's flip, check out this article in the current issue of International Security. I have corresponded with Professor Jentleson, and he acknowledges that Qaddafi probably only decided that American threats were credible after the invasion of Iraq. The invasion was not enough to flip him, but neither were the negotiations -- remember, we caught the Libyans smuggling centrifuge parts in October 2003, which is how we rolled back the A. Q. Khan network in the first place. So you do not even have to get to this article (a report of an interview with Qaddafi where he says that the invasion of Iraq inluenced his decision) or this article (Hans Blix grudgingly admitting the same thing) to conclude that the hawks' basic point -- that we needed to revive our credibility after thirty years of erosion -- holds up.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Fri Apr 14, 01:43:00 AM:


Notice I said nothing about the French. That's your fixation, not mine.
Notice also that "we are planning for it" doesn't mean me personally. It means the relevant government agencies, of which is the military is the largest.
Notice how I chose to assume they'd have a bomb by 2009, and you argue back that we shouldn't trust intelligence that says it will take them 4-5 years. If you think they'll have a bomb before then, take it up with von Hoffel.

Conservatives want this issue now because they need a sabre to rattle for the 2006 elections. They want to get all righteously firey and brimstoney. Yes, Iran is a problem. I even agree it's wise to keep all options on the table (excepting a pre-emptive nuclear strike, which would set a really stupid world precedent). But there's a lot to discuss before we put on the war paint, like how much military we can spare from Iraq, what happens after we bomb/invade/occupy Iran, what did we learn from dealing with Iraq that will help or hinder us in Iran, how do we prepare the world so we can invade the 3rd Islamic nation in under a decade and not kick off a worldwide holy war, how we reconcile a pre-emptive war against Iran while embracing India's unsanctioned nukes and turning a blind eye to Pakistan and Korea? The best time to rationally discuss these issues not during midterm elections. I think in light of the failed intelligence on Iraq that we might have benefitted from some fact checking rather than rushing the war vote before midterms.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Apr 14, 05:23:00 AM:

Feeling lucky, are we?

Given the intelligence community's long history of intelligence failures, I wonder that anyone would seriously advance the notion of relying on the later of two dates based on what "responsible intelligence analysts" have to say.

And I'm not knocking them, by the way. Not by any means. Intel is an inherently chancy business - those who keep trying to pretend it isn't need to stop treating guesstimates as fact. That's where we get half the impeachment idiocy we're dealing with now.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Apr 14, 06:17:00 AM:

I agree that it is not useful to debate matters of war and peace in the context of an election, but I don't think we are there yet. It is an off year, and Americans are incredibly turned off to politics. Most Americans, including the great majority of voters, have not thought once that there will be an election in November. Seven months in advance, during an off year, is irrelevant except for a few professionals. That is not what is driving this.

This crisis is being driven by the fact that Iran elected a new president last fall, who has chosen to use extremely bellicose rhetoric. He has been so blunt, that even Europeans are nervous about it. Jacques Chirac, who like Bush is unpopular and does not face elections, felt the need to say explicitly that France had retargeted the force de frappe (the term for the French nuclear capability, notwithstanding that it means something akin to "large milkshake" in Boston) so that it could retaliate against Iran. If the mullahs had not run Ahmadinjehad and if he had not been elected, this particular crisis would not be happening now.

Look, this sabre-rattling is not even in Republican political interests. If it weren't for these wars -- which depress people because they seem to have no end and keep the price of oil at least $15 higher than it would be otherwise -- the GOP would walk away with the next election. The economy is way too strong for it to be otherwise.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Apr 15, 11:43:00 AM:

I'm entertained by the idea that every major foreign policy issue for the last 6 years has been invented by Republicans seeking (re-)election because the Republicans focus on what we should do about perceived problems while the Democrats focus on what we should do about the Republicans. Keep 'em coming, Lanky Bastard!

And uh, Iran is not an Arab nation. FYI.

Also, conservatives have been quietly agitating against Iran since 1979. Why would they suddenly stop in December, other than to satisfy your conspiratorial instincts?  

By Blogger Freedom Fighter, at Thu Apr 20, 03:36:00 PM:

To summarize: I give it three years tops before Iran has operational nukes. Avi Dishkin agrees with me.

Read this: J O S H U A P U N D I T: The nuclear project Ahmadinejad didn't brag about

You're welcome.

Robert@ Joshuapundit  

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