You know what they say about making assumptions, right? pic.twitter.com/q40h9hMO3g
— Nima Shirazi (@WideAsleepNima) March 2, 2015
Ever since the Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson included this decades-old nugget of alarmism his rundown of erroneous nuclear predictions about Iran in November 2011, countless articles and analyses have repeated it. Here's what Peterson wrote:
Unsurprisingly, this blast from the past was immediately seized upon as perfect proof of Netanyahu's poor track record and weak soothsaying skills when it comes to advocating for American military campaigns by promoting false claims of regional WMD development. It has been reproduced constantly ever since. For instance, in September 2012, Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, "It was in 1992 that he [Netanyahu] said Iran was three to five years from nuclear capacity." This past February, the New York Daily News noted, "Netanyahu has long warned Iran is close to nuclear capability. He said in 1992 that Iran was 'three to five years' from developing a bomb."
In fact, it is difficult to find any article published about Netanyahu's hysterical obsession with the nonexistent threat to Israel posed by Iran's nuclear energy program that doesn't include this quote. The claim was given new life following Netanyahu's recent speech before Congress and has resurfaced dozens of times since in major media outlets like The New Yorker, Ha'aretz, Al Jazeera, and The Intercept, to name just a few. This past week, Nick Kristof wrote in The New York Times that "beginning in 1992," Netanyahu has "asserted that Iran was three to five years from a nuclear capability." In most instances, the quote is sourced back to Peterson's 2011 article, which unfortunately does not provide links to its myriad references.
Since 2010, I too have been compiling false predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuke. As I've documented, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have long been an especially rich source of nonsense when it comes to warning of an Iranian bomb that is always seemingly just around the corner.
However, Peterson - despite being an excellent reporter and meticulous researcher - got the year wrong on this one. Based on the historical record, Netanyahu issued his infamous "three to five" year prognostication in 1995, not 1992.
Sure, this may be a minor point, but in a media landscape where false facts are routinely propagated, both intentionally and accidentally, it is all the more vital to demand accuracy and accountability. This one mistake - potentially merely the result of a typo - has now become part of the narrative.
Peterson's error can most likely be traced back to former National Security Council staffer, now a professor at Columbia, Gary Sick's September 23, 2009 article in The Daily Beast, entitled "How to Keep Iran in Check Without War." In discussing previous American and Israeli estimates about Iran's nuclear capability, Sick includes the precise Netanyahu "three to five years" quote and dates it January 1992.
Yet, it was actually on January 11, 1995 - not in 1992 - when Benjamin Netanyahu told a nearly empty Knesset chamber, "Within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb, without having to import either the technology or the material," adding, "[The nuclear threat] must be uprooted by an international front headed by the US. It necessitates economic sanctions on Iran."
This was originally reported in a dispatch from Mideast Mirror (Vol. 9, No. 8) and was reproduced in the Jerusalem Post at the time. Later that year, Netanyahu repeated the claim in his book "Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat the International Terrorist Network," writing, "The best estimates at this time place Iran between three and five years away from possessing the prerequisites required for the independent production of nuclear weapons."
Nevertheless, as Peterson's article has become the go-to resource for many writing about this issue, the 1992 error has since proliferated (forgive the pun).
Netanyahu's 1993 column
(Yedioth Ahronoth Archives)
On February 12, 1993, however, an Associated Press dispatch entitled "Newspaper Report: Iran Will Have Nuclear Bomb by 1999," summarized a report from Israeli daily Maariv, which quoted "experts who predicted Tehran would have an atomic bomb within six years."
One of these so-called "experts" was Likud Party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who had recently written in Yedioth Ahronoth claiming Iranian leaders had "repeatedly" vowed to acquire an "Islamic bomb" with which to destroy Israel. By 1999, Netanyahu insisted, Iran would have such a weapon.
Netanyahu's claim, while not attributed to him personally, was echoed by others quoted by AP. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said, "We know the Iranian nuclear capability poses a big threat and a great danger," while Daniel Leshem, an arms expert who used to work for Israeli military intelligence, claimed, "The Iranians are investing billions in developing an infrastructure for creating material for nuclear weapons" and that "by 1999 they will have a bomb."
These assessments, while clearly both speculative and undoubtedly incorrect, make sense in context. In the early to mid-1990s, Western intelligence agencies - echoed by Israel - routinely claimed Iran would acquire a nuclear weapon by the year 2000, not by mid-decade. Netanyahu's own 1993 warning of Iranian nuclear capability "by 1999" and his 1995 assessment of "three to five" years is therefore in line with these predictions.
Reporting and commentary on Iran's nuclear program is often rife with errors. Fact-checking is vital, though seldom done with diligence. The minor, perhaps arguably insignificant, error made by Peterson in 2011 is indeed a tough dragon to slay - that little erroneous tidbit is ubiquitous when it comes to articles on Netanyahu's history of lies.
But accuracy is important. Writers and editors should always check, and double check, their sources (and sometimes their sources' sources).
There is no doubt Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to make outrageous and factually incorrect statements. Similarly, articles will continue to be written using Netanyahu's past claims as evidence of his delusional propaganda and the danger he poses to millions of people in range of Israeli - and American - bullets and bombs. Many of those articles will refer back to the Christian Science Monitor's timeline of predictions.
Thus, Peterson's error should be immediately corrected so that these future references are accurate. There's already enough disinformation published about Iran and its nuclear program. It's long past time the media starts getting things right, even the small stuff.
Note: I too initially used Gary Sick's 2009 article as a reference for my December 2010 compendium of erroneous predictions about Iran's nuclear program, entitled "The Phantom Menace." In so doing, I originally rendered Netanyahu's "three to five years" quote as occurring in 1992, as Sick claimed. It was not until months later that I re-reviewed the sources and updated the article accordingly.
It should also be noted that, in September 2010, Paul Iddon correctly dated the quote in question to 1995, in a short post at Uskowi on Iran. Furthermore, in a rare case of due diligence in the mainstream press, Kurt Eichenwald correctly dates the same quote in his October 2013 Newsweek article, entitled, "The Phantom Menace." (sound familiar?)
January 8, 2016 - It took some time - and some persistent noodging - but Scott Peterson has graciously updated his timeline, correcting the year for Netanyahu's oft-quoted "three to five" years nuclear prediction. Here's what it looks like now:
As a result of the update, the entry itself has also been moved out from under the heading for "Israel paints Iran as Enemy No. 1: 1992" (where it was originally listed) to the next one, "US joins the warnings: 1992-97."
An editor's note has also been added to the bottom of the page:
My gratitude goes out to Scott and his editors at the Christian Science Monitor for making this change based on their review of my research. Now all that remains is updating all the erroneous references to this quote in the hundreds of articles and books that use it, right?