Misinformation On Iran’s Nuclear Program Pervades Sunday Talk Shows

Benjamin Netanyahu on CNN's State of the Union

With the economy and other domestic issues dominating the discourse this election cycle, it’s rare to see the Sunday political talk shows focus on foreign policy issues. But the attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East last week and escalating rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program changed all that on Sunday and the debates that unfolded, particularly regarding discussions on Iran, weren’t pretty.

The amount of misinformation on Iran’s nuclear program on the Sunday talk shows this week was staggering. The worst of which this blog previously highlighted: ABC reporter Brian Ross said that if the Iranians make the decision to build a nuclear weapon, it would take them as little as four weeks to build one bomb.

Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who repeatedly referred to Iran having a “nuclear weapons program” (U.S. and Israeli intelligence and the IAEA do not believe Iran has made the decision to go that far) — appeared to be trying to rev up fears about a potential Iranian nuclear weapon, saying on NBC’s Meet the Press:

NETANYAHU: I think that as they get closer and closer and closer to the achievement of the weapons-grade material, and they’re very close, they’re six months away from being about 90 percent of having the enriched uranium for an atom bomb.

It’s unclear what Netanyahu is saying Iran is six months away from exactly. But whatever he meant, the reality is that, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week, it would take Iran at least a year, probably a bit longer, to obtain a bomb once its leaders made the decision to do so. A new bipartisan expert report from the Iran Project expounds:

Conservatively, it would take Iran a year or more to build a military-grade weapon, with at least two years or more required to create a nuclear warhead that would be reliably deliverable by a missile.

One key point on Iran’s timeline for building a bomb is that the U.S. and its allies would most likely know when the clock starts ticking. As Panetta said last week, “We have pretty good intelligence on them. We know generally what they’re up to. And so we keep a close track on them.”

Yet the Sunday show pundits got this all wrong as well. “President Obama said our intelligence service will give us a pretty long lead time in understanding where Iran is,” George Will said on ABC’s This Week, adding, “I think he may have a faith in the ability of our intelligence services to draw lines and put down markers as to where the Iranian program is that we simply actually don’t have.”

And on Meet the Press, Bod Woodward and Andrea Mitchell echoed Mr. Will:

MITCHELL: [Obama administration officials] believe somehow in this notion that they will have the intelligence, they will know when the Ayatollah makes a political decision, and they will still have the time. And arguably in the past, we’ve learned that intelligence is not that precise. […]

WOODWARD: If you study intelligence, as I have for about 40 years, and Jeffrey and I were talking about, some day we’re going to write a book called “The Unintelligence of Intelligence” because it’s just often wrong.

Again, here’s what the Iran Project’s report has to say on this issue:

Iran today is probably the most “watched” country in the world — not just by the United States and the IAEA, but by other nations as well. To carry out a secret, parallel nuclear weapons program, Iran would need to divert both safeguarded material and some of the country’s relatively small network of well-qualified experts in centrifuge enrichment; such diversions would almost certainly be detected. While there are differences of opinion on this issue, we believe it would be extremely difficult for Iran to hide a nuclear program devoted to weapons development. No monitoring and detection system is failure-proof, but Iran has little reason to be confident that it could get away with creating a secret program to produce fissile material for a weapon.

It’s worth noting at this point that the United Nations had an inspection team in Iraq too just before the U.S.-led invasion, which issued a report shortly before being kicked out saying it “had found no weapons of mass destruction” but needed more time to complete its work.

There is a serious push both by some here in the United States and abroad for another war in the Middle East. The Iran Project, and indeed, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials, warn that attacking Iran could spark a regional war lasting several years with a number of unintended negative consequences. While it’s a positive development that this week’s Sunday talk shows spent considerable time on the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, which does represent a serious threat to the international community, a debate as serious as this should not deviate from the facts. Unfortunately, Sunday’s debates on Iran fell short in that test.