In a column titled “How to Beat Obama on Foreign Policy,” Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg rips into Vice President Biden’s comments on the Iranian nuclear issue during the recent vice presidential debate, claiming Biden handed Mitt Romney a “gift” by allegedly “downplay[ing] the importance of confronting Iran” and that Biden’s remarks on Iran during the debate were “technically inaccurate.” Goldberg often writes insightfully on the issue, but his critique of Biden misses the mark: the Vice President’s remarks were an accurate summation of the state of affairs with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.
Goldberg is skeptical of Biden’s claim that “we’ll know if [Iran] start[s] the process of building a weapon.” Goldberg’s central complaint is with Biden’s claim that “[b]oth the Israelis and we know — we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?” Biden’s point is a basic one: Iran is currently enriching uranium up to 19.75 percent U-235, but a nuclear weapon requires 90 percent levels. Moving from 20 to 90 percent takes work and, moreover, would then require warheads and delivery systems Iran currently lacks to make full nuclear missiles.
Goldberg worries the United States, Israel, and other allies would not be able to track Iran’s progress in enriching uranium to the purity needed for a nuclear weapon and quotes non proliferation expert David Albright saying, “You only need a very small facility [to make weapons]. It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering.” But a recent report, which Albright coauthored, highlights the difficulty for Iran to “breakout” and enrich to 90 percent levels for weapons without getting caught, and so it wouldn’t in the near term:
Although Iran’s breakout times are shortening, an Iranian breakout in the next year could not escape detection by the IAEA or the United States. Furthermore, the United States and its allies maintain the ability to respond forcefully to any Iranian decision to break out. During the next year or so, breakout times at Natanz and Fordow appear long enough to make an Iranian decision to break out risky. Therefore, ISIS assesses that Iran is unlikely to break out at Natanz or at Fordow in the near term, barring unforeseen developments such as a pre-emptive military strike.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors also routinely inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would make it very hard for Iran to leap towards a bomb without getting caught red-handed — a key point which was highlighted at a recent CAP event on U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran.
Though Goldberg suggests Biden’s comment was a “dramatic…deviation from the administration’s line on Iran,” the Vice President was merely reiterating what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said on multiple occasions. Speaking in March, Panetta said it would take Iran between two and three years to attach a bomb to a missile: “the consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon.” Panetta went further in September saying the U.S. would know if Iran moved to weaponization. “It’s roughly about a year right now. A little more than a year. And so, we think we will have the opportunity once we know that they’ve made that decision, take the action necessary to stop (the program),” he said.
Panetta’s point about Iran’s “decision” is a crucial one — American and Israeli intelligence agree that Iran has not yet decided to go down these definitive steps towards a bomb. Though Goldberg suggests our intelligence is sketchy, citing the failure to anticipate 9/11 or the Benghazi attack, the comparison is a facile one. Iran is “the most watched country on earth,” with multiple international intelligence agencies keeping a close eye on its nuclear progress. Contrast that with anticipating attacks by amorphous terrorist organizations scattered around the world.
President Obama has routinely said that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, not containing one, is the policy of his administration and that “all options are on the table” to achieve this end, including military force. The Administration does, however, think diplomacy is the “best and most permanent way to resolve the crisis,” a point worth emphasizing given the consequences of a strike.