"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."
- Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Harper's Magazine, November 1964
Well, it's that time of year again.
It has now been four years since I published "The Phantom Menace: Fantasies, Falsehoods, and Fear-Mongering about Iran's Nuclear Program," a massive compendium of constant assertions made by American and Israeli (and occasionally European) officials, pundits, analysts and commentators regarding the supposed inevitability and imminence of a nuclear-armed Iran. These hysterical and wholly-untrue allegations that have been made repeatedly for the past three decades, despite a distinct lack of credible evidence that Iran has ever - ever - expressed any interest or intent to acquire an atomic arsenal, weaponry which the Iranian leadership has consistently and unequivocally dismissed as strategically and geopolitical obsolete and condemned as ethically abhorrent and religiously prohibited.
Since originally posted in December 2010, the cacophonous catalog of crying wolf over Iranian nukes has been updated more than 80 times with new alarmist claims and dire predictions (read them here). More extensive follow-up catalogs were posted as stand-alone articles in November 2011, October 2012 and December 2013.
Despite intensive multilateral negotiations over Iran's safeguarded nuclear program and the lifting of international sanctions continuing apace in Europe and Iran's continued strict adherence to the restrictions and obligations implemented by last year's interim agreement, alarmist assessments of Iran's nuclear capabilities keep getting published.
Here are some choice predictions from this past year (none of which will ever come true). Keep in mind, the hypothetical clocks on these estimates only start once the Iranian leadership decides to abrogate its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kick out all IAEA inspectors, and begin enriching its stockpile of low enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels. This is a fantasy. Iran will not do this. And even if it did (which it won't), acquiring one bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium is a far cry from obtaining a nuclear bomb. In other words, any estimate you read below is speculative in the extreme. The clock will never ever actually start ticking.
Ok, now grab your handkerchief, clutch your pearls and keep close to your fainting couch.
Unrelenting Iran hawk Matthew Kroenig started the year strong on January 7 with a call to commit war crimes. Claiming that "diplomacy remains unlikely to neutralize the threat from Iran's nuclear program," Kroenig again suggested against fact that "the United States may still have to choose between bombing Iran and allowing it to acquire a nuclear bomb." To make his bad faith argument for demanding a deal-breaking 'zero enrichment' outcome, Kroenig wrote, "Any deal that permits Iran to continue enriching uranium cannot be considered comprehensive in any sense. At present, it is estimated that Iran could dash to a nuclear weapons capability in two or three months. A deal that allows limited enrichment would push that timeline back to about six months, at best."
Writing in the new York Times on January 9, former Los Alamos director Siegfried S. Hecker and former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry analyzed Iran's slow nuclear progress, noting, "All Iran has today is the capacity to produce small amounts of reactor fuel or, if it decides to, one or two bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium per year (which it would then need to weaponize)."
Two days later, on January 10, New Jersey Senator and leading sanctions advocate Robert Menendez said on MSNBC, "If we wait until we determine whether or not a negotiation can succeed... the timeframe that the Iranians have to produce enough fissile material for the first nuclear weapon is six to eight weeks," meaning that any potential, punitive sanctions legislation would be "inconsequential."
neoconservative crusade against Iran's peaceful program was largely responsible for focusing attention on dubious allegations about Iran's past behavior, said on January 19 that, at Iran's then-current capacity, "it would take about two, three weeks to have enough uranium hexafluoride high-enriched for one single weapon." Of course, while already wildly speculative, Heinonen's comment was spun by the media into a claim not about a stockpile of fissile material, but about the acquisition of a deliverable "nuclear bomb."
On January 29, Tom Wilson wrote a misleading column in Commentary that claimed U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress Iran "essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so."
On March 17, the day before nuclear negotiations resumed in Vienna, Al Monitor's Barbara Slavin wrote about the various "experts and think tanks" that will be expected to interpret the meaning and value of any final agreement reached between Iran and the six world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russian and the United States - known as the P5+1. David Albright's Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which is the leading generator of alarmism exploited by warmongering Congress members, "has carved out a niche by estimating the mix of centrifuges and enriched uranium stockpiles that would provide confidence that Iran could not break out for six months to one year," wrote Slavin. While praising Albright's work, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies maintains ISIS's predictions are "'worst-case' estimates" and any real breakout scenario would take "at least twice as long as it should in theory."
On March 31, former State Department official Robert Einhorn published a paper for the Brookings Institute in which he declared that Iran "now has the enrichment capacity, should it decide to build nuclear weapons, to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a first nuclear bomb in about two months." Einhorn also summarizes ISIS estimates based on various combinations of limited stockpile and centrifuges.
A week later, on April 8, Secretary of State John Kerry testified at a Senate committee hearing that "it's public knowledge today that we're operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months. That's been in the public domain."
On April 13, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin suggested that, "if the West agrees to a situation whereby Iran's nuclear infrastructure including its refinement of uranium, plutonium nuclear plant, nuclear military research, and ballistic missile programs are left in place, it is only a matter of time before Tehran will have its weapon." He added, "Stretching out the breakout period will, in fact, lessen the likelihood that the West would or could react in time to stop them because once an agreement is signed the administration will have a vested interest in pretending that Iran is not embarrassing them."
Two days later, on April 15, Patrick Goodenough wrote for rightwing website CNSNews that, contrary to Kerry's "two month" timeframe, "In fact, some expert Iran estimates have the breakout down to as little as one month, although the State Department has called that into question."
On April 18, Tyler Cullis and Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council reminded readers on CNN that Senator Robert Menendez noted his frustration at a recent Senate hearing that "negotiations with Iran may produce a deal that 'only' extends Iran's nuclear breakout timeline to 6 to 12 months," while "Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz piled on shortly after, calling such a timeline a '[U.S.] surrender to Iran' and 'unacceptable.'"
In an April 27 appearance on CNN's "State of the Nation," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bellowed that Iran was "about two months away" from producing "fissile material for a bomb" and was "seeking a deal that would keep them more or less where they are. In other words, they will be a few months away–or they might be set back a few months from producing enough nuclear material for a bomb."
Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, told an annual gathering sponsored by Israel lobby group Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) that current negotiations would allow Iran to become "a threshold nuclear power" that would only push its breakout time from "two months, where they are today, to maybe two or three months further."
On May 8, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that "Brigadier General (res.) Uzi Eilam, who for a decade headed the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, does not believe that Tehran is even close to having a bomb, if that is even what it really aspires to." The report quoted Eilam as saying, "The Iranian nuclear program will only be operational in another 10 years. Even so, I am not sure that Iran wants the bomb."
Days later, on May 13, Israeli Intelligence Minister Steinitz, who has a history of regurgitating the crazed ravings of his idol and prime minister, said at a Washington D.C. forum that he believes Iran was intent on becoming "a nuclear weapons threshold state" that is "one or two steps away from a bomb." He added that Iran could militarize its current stockpile of uranium "in less than six months" and less than a year if it "started from scratch."
The following day, May 14, USA Today's Oren Dorell, who's reporting on Iran leaves much to be desired, once again repeated the "two month" estimate and the "six to twelve months" potential of a negotiated settlement. He quoted FDD's Mark Dubowitz as saying that "a six-to-12-month breakout window would give the United States more time to discover any duplicity and mobilize to stop it if Iran cheated on a deal."
On June 3, as talks continued, an unnamed diplomat told Reuters that Iran was expecting "to get capacity to fuel Bushehr and that's unrealistic" because that "gets you a very short breakout time."
Claiming that scrutinizing breakout times "is precisely the wrong measure of whether a deal is successful," Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, opined in Foreign Policy on June 5 that, if Iran wanted to build a nuclear bomb, it would do so using "a covert facility with technology from the civil program," which would "provide Iran with a significant and steady supply of highly enriched uranium."
The next week, on June 11, an Iranian government report entitled, "How long would an Iranian 'breakout' really take?" tackled the hypothetical issue head-on. The report stated that, using its current uranium enrichment capacity of roughly 10,000 first-generation centrifuges, it would take Iran a minimum of three years to acquire the amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) required for a single bomb. An anonymous U.S. official told Al Monitor, "Ironically enough, the longer timelines for both HEU and plutonium production in the Iranian report may be more accurate than Western estimates."
Unsurprisingly, the analysts at ISIS disagreed, writing on June 17 that they stood by their "breakout estimate of 2-3 months."
The next day, Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright challenged the logic of hinging the success of nuclear talks on the issue of breakout. Writing in Slate on June 18, they explained, "Though Iran's estimated breakout time is now about two months, if Tehran tomorrow embarked on a headlong effort to build a weapon, the project would take much longer than two months." Rather, "the time it takes to produce a deliverable weapon is closer to a year, maybe longer."
The next month, former CIA official Paul Pillar also lamented the "fixation with breakout, with the repeated references to it as a supposed reason to be wary of any agreement with Iran," writing in The National Interest on July 15 that "breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran." Pillar further noted that, once an agreement is signed, Iran would have absolutely no incentive to violate its principles.
On July 18, John Allen Gay, an editor at The National Interest, published in the Huffington Post a largely misleading article about Iran's alleged past nuclear research, based wholly on unauthenticated evidence passed along to the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies by Israeli agents. In it, Gay writes, as others have, that "if Iran expelled inspectors today and embarked on a headlong dash to create enough weapons-grade material for a bomb, that would take at least several months -- and terms of a final deal may extend that to as much as a year, depending on, for example, how many centrifuges Iran is allowed to have."
In a conversation with Foreign Policy published July 21, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out that "the notion that's been publicized in America that there could be a crazy Iranian rush to have the bomb in nine months is, to me, meaningless." Brzezinski explains that, because "Israel has an effective nuclear monopoly in the region, and it will have that for a long time," the "one thing that the Iranians are certain not to do is to undertake some suicidal mission the moment they have one bomb." He continued:
What do you do with a single nuclear weapon that you have for the first time, that you haven't tested, that you haven't previously weaponized, that you cannot be sure that you can deliver effectively, and with which you cannot protect yourself from retaliation because you don't have any more? And the Israelis have a very strong military, and they have about, what -- estimates are 150 to 200 bombs. That's enough to kill every Iranian. So I think that issue is phony.Two days later, rightwing tabloid The Washington Free Beacon dismissed skepticism over breakout estimates, stating that "Iran could still produce enough nuclear material to fuel a bomb in as little as two months" and claiming that "Iran is known to have secret nuclear sites where it hides rogue enrichment activities, an issue that has not yet been covered in nuclear talks with the West." The Free Beacon's Adam Kredo, without presenting a shred of evidence, called the existence of such clandestine facilities a "fact."
Following a visit to Israel in early August, New York Congressman Steve Israel issued a report on his trip to his constituents that is as propagandistic and disingenuous as one might expect from a lawmaker whose voting record is often more pro-Zionist than many rightwing Knesset members.
Recounting a breakfast he had with Major General Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, in a section called "Bomb or Bombing," Congressman Israel writes that "the number one potential military threat remains Iran" and that "[s]ome believe that Iran is three to four months from a breakout capability (not including delivery systems)." The five strategies Yadlin suggests to address the alleged Iranian threat run from "engagement with the international community" through sanctions, sabotage and assassinations, and a military attack, all the way to "regime change." The report the states, "Yadlin finishes with a troubling timetable: Israel will reach a junction within a year: a nuclear capable Iran or a military response to prevent that capability. In other words: 'bomb or bombing.'"
On September 3, Yuval Steinitz was back, telling reporters that after "11 years of negotiations between Iran and world powers... I am sorry to say that after a year of talks, Iran is closer than ever to achieving nuclear capabilities."
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, Benjamin Netanyahu argued that an Iran "with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium... would effectively cement Iran's place as a threshold military nuclear power." The Israeli leader continued, "In the future, at a time of its choosing, Iran, the world's most dangerous state in the world's most dangerous region, would obtain the world's most dangerous weapons. Allowing that to happen would pose the gravest threat to us all."
The same day, however, longtime Iran hawk Gary Samore, a former Obama official and president of the lobbying outfit United Against Nuclear Iran, contradicted the usual talking points, writing that "Iran’' ability to produce nuclear weapons in the near term is severely constrained by political and technical factors."
On October 2, Tablet published an excerpt from physicist Jeremy Bernstein's book "Nuclear Iran" that analyzes the capabilities of Iran's centrifuges and estimates how long it might take for Iran to amass enough highly enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear bomb. "[W]hat the numbers do suggest," Bernstein tentatively concludes, "is that if the Iranians ever throw off the international constraints, they could produce in not many months enough fissile material to begin to manufacture nuclear weapons." He adds, "Any agreement that would enlarge this breakout time would be extremely helpful."
A short dispatch from Associated Press stringer George Jahn on October 16 notes, "Experts say the low-enriched uranium Iran has stored, if further enriched, could arm up to seven nuclear weapons. They estimate it would take Tehran between 3-to-12 months to have enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb."
Lee Smith, bellicose columnist at Tablet and The Weekly Standard, wrote on November 25 that a proposed "six month" breakout capability was a "best-case scenario," since Iran could engage in "activities at a clandestine facility," meaning that "the breakout time will be measured not in months but in weeks."
Days later, on December 2, Republican guru Dick Morris wrote in The Hill that Iran was only offering its international negotiating partners the possibility of operating its 10,000 centrifuges "more slowly and to hold down enrichment to below-bomb levels." Even in that scenario, Morris claimed, "With a stockpile of 3 percent to 5 percent enriched uranium, to say nothing of 20 percent enrichment, a bomb is just a short time away whenever the ayatollah flips the switch." That must be some switch!
And so the band plays on.
Here's hoping the New Year brings about a resolution to the unnecessary and absurd nuclear impasse, if for no other reason than we can stop reading meaningless nonsense in the media. (Who am I kidding? Even with an accord in place, this crap will surely continue.)