I have this vague sense I’ve been hearing alarmed Israeli reports about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon since I was in high school, and today Justin Elliott runs it all down in Salon:
According to various Israeli government predictions over the years, Iran was going to have a bomb by the mid-90s — or 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, and finally 2010. More recent Israeli predictions have put that date at 2011 or 2014.
None of this is to say that Iran will not at some point get a nuclear weapon — though the Iranian government has maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. That said, Iran has not fully cooperated with international inspectors. But even assuming that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, estimates still vary widely on when it will reach that goal.
To me the moral of this story is not only that intelligence estimates are uncertain, it’s that whatever Iran is doing with its nuclear program it hasn’t been engaged in a desperate, all-cylinders-firing, this-is-our-top-priority crash program of nuclear weapons development. Those worst case estimates come from assuming that’s what’s going on, and the estimates keep being mistaken. Instead, Iran’s quest for more nuclear capabilities should be seen in the context of a state that’s trying to do many different things and whose priorities shift over time. Something people always need to consider about military attacks on Iran is not only what damage they might do to Iranian nuclear research, but also what policy shifts they might induce in Iran in terms of increasing emphasis on nuclear activities.