Iran is a Problem, Not an Emergency

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Guest authored by Matthew Yglesias

With the latest breakdown in negotiations between Iran and the European Union, the years-long steady drip of Persia-related punditry has become a flood over the past month. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer fretted on January 17 that the Islamic Republic was “probably just months” from constructing a bomb, and blamed European fecklessness. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol opined in his magazine’s January 23 issue that America should be “holding open the possibility of, and beginning to prepare for, various forms of military action” because Iran’s “nuclear program could well be getting close to the point of no return.” The headline of a Reuel Marc Gerecht article in that magazine’s January 30 issue wonders, “Coming Soon: Nuclear Theocrats?

Based on such pronouncements, the reasonable reader, while perhaps disagreeing with the neoconservative pundits’ preferred “bombs away” policy, would no doubt conclude that, at a minimum, the Iranian nuclear program is, if unchecked, less than a year away from producing a usable nuclear weapon.

The reality, as Dana Linzer reported in the news pages of the Post last August, is rather different. Rather than being months from a bomb, a National Intelligence Estimate reflecting the consensus view of America’s intelligence agencies concluded “that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon.” This report revised earlier projections that, while more alarmist, still pegged the figure at five years, not months, and brings American estimates into line with analysis from British and Israeli intelligence. In addition, while manufacturing a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium (what Iran is thought to be about ten years from doing) is, indeed, the most difficult step in building a nuclear device, it is not, in and of itself, a usable weapon and building workable warheads and delivery systems are non-trivial engineering challenges on their own terms.

In this, as in all such intelligence estimates, some uncertainty certainly does exist and it’s possible that Iran could build a weapon sooner. What’s not possible is that the panicky pundits are correct. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security have assembled a worst-case scenario for the Iranian program (or a best-case scenario, from the perspective of Teheran) and concluded that, at a minimum, it would take about three years for the Iranians to build a bomb even if one assumes that, contrary to the historical record, their scientists face no technical problems whatsoever along the way.

Such considerations did not dissuade historian turned op-ed columnist Niall Ferguson from darkly warning in the January 16 Los Angeles Times that absent a preemptive American military strike on Iran, the world could be faced with full-scale nuclear war in the Middle East by August 2007. Back in the real world, even if Iran magically had all the equipment it would need to enrich uranium and made it work unproblematically tomorrow, it would still take a full year just to run the centrifuges long enough to make the uranium. Consistent with the Ferguson timeline, the resulting magic uranium would need to be weaponized in just seven months, at which point – and for no good reason – Iran’s leaders are supposed to launch their bomb at Israel knowing full well that to do so would merely be to court their own death and their country’s destruction.

Getting the know-nothing ball rolling a bit ahead of schedule was National Review‘s John Derbyshire, who predicted in his magazine’s New Year’s roundup that Iran would test a nuclear bomb sometime in 2006.

This pattern of threat inflation should be familiar to Americans, and it didn’t end up in a happy place last time around. What’s more, while there’s little to be done if Kristol chooses to use a magazine he runs to publish disinformation, the editors of major daily newspapers have an obligation to their readers to ensure a modicum of factual accuracy, even in articles running in opinion sections.

The one aspect of the Iran question that does enjoy universal agreement is that it involves difficult, unappealing choices and a notable absence of easy answers. Under the circumstances, it’s vital that the public have a clear understanding of what is genuinely at issue here. Instead, conservatives are seeking to foster an atmosphere of panic and hysteria that will cloud people’s judgment and delegitimize and marginalize the considerable downside of military action. So far, the saving grace of the situation has been that the Bush administration itself seems undecided as to what it wants to do about Iran and has therefore been relatively restrained in its commentary, a marked contrast to its behavior in the lead-up to the Iraq War. But it hardly seems reasonable to bet heavily on the proposition that the administration will continue to eschew the demagoguery and dishonesty of its allies.

Matthew Yglesias is Staff Writer at The American Prospect and Associate Editor of TPMCafe. You can read more of his work at

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