Iran would be at or near the top of a list of countries Americans would least like to seehave nuclear weapons, and the reasons forapprehension have deepened dramatically inthe past year with the election of PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran under themullahs since the revolution of 1979 hasbeen a weird and ominous country. With Ahmadinejad’s new prominence, the weird-ness quotient has reached new levels. Iran isnow headed by an individual who expressesthe hope that Israel be wiped off the map anddenies that the Holocaust ever occurred.Those are sentiments not found in civilizedcircles anywhere in the world.If one could wave a magic wand and elimi-nate Iran’s nuclear program, all responsiblegovernments would be grasping for thatwand. Alas, in the real world such magicalsolutions do not exist. U.S. policymakers haveonly a choice among problematic options.Some choices, though, are clearly better thanothers. Above all, as policymakers consider the various options, they need to avoid a sense of panic. U.S. intelligence agencies have con-cluded that Iran will not be able to buildnuclear weapons for another 5 to 10 years.
Prominent independent experts agree withthat assessment.
Even the Israeli govern-ment, which has an obvious interest in pre-senting a worst-case scenario of the Iraniannuclear threat, concedes that Tehran will notbe able to build such weapons for another 3years.
Based on recent information, someBush administration policymakers now embrace a similar conclusion, although theintelligence community has not changed itsofficial estimate.
Yet even 3 years is a signifi-cant amount of time to craft a response. Only the most intense members of the factionpushing war with Iran argue that the dangeris more imminent.
Their most recent thesisis that, although Iran might not be able tobuild nukes on its own in the immediatefuture, there is a very real danger that NorthKorea, whose program is more advanced,might sell Tehran a bomb or two.
Thosewho advance that thesis present little evi-dence that Pyongyang would take such a step, knowing that not only the United Statesbut other countries in the international com-munity (including North Korea’s principalallies, Russia and China) would be most dis-pleased with such reckless proliferation. Anthony Cordesman and Khalid R. Al-Rodhan, scholars at the Center for Strategicand International Studies, note that mostgovernment and independent analyses of Iran’s nuclear program in the 1990s predict-ed that the country would be able to buildnuclear weapons by 2000. That clearly didnot happen. The reason for the faulty esti-mates, according to Cordesman and Al-Rodhan, is that they “often were based on theunrealistic assumption that Iran’s nuclearprogram would evolve without interrup-tions, technical difficulties, or voluntary sus-pensions.”
Given that track record, we should bedoubly skeptical of newer predictions thatTehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclearpower. The bulk of expert opinion bothinside and outside the U.S. government now concludes that Iran is still a long time away from having a nuclear arsenal. When a poten-tial threat is measured in years, it allows poli-cymakers to carefully consider alternativeways of addressing the problem. There is noneed for precipitous action.
Prelude to Confrontation:The European-LedNegotiations
There has been a diplomatic effort under-way for more than three years to dissuade Iranfrom trying to become a nuclear power. Thateffort began in 2003 when Britain, France, andGermany—the so-called EU-3—became suffi-ciently worried about Tehran’s apparent objec-tives that they decided to address the problemthrough engagement and negotiations. They urged the United States to join that effort, butthe Bush administration spurned the over-
The bulk of expert opinionnow concludesthat Iran is still along time away from having anuclear arsenal.