David Sanger has another story on the front page of the The New York Times today urgently alerting us that Iran is [still] at least a year away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. If you’re like me, you’ve lost track of how many times Sanger has reported this one year timeline. But that is not the correct timeline for how long it would take Iran to build a nuclear weapon — it is the timeline for how long it would take Iran to enrich the uranium necessary for a weapon. These are not the same thing.
If Iran were to commit to building a nuclear weapon and kicked out international inspectors, it would take Iran 2-5 years to build “something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon,” according to the Congressional testimony of General James Cartwright on April 14, 2010. Gen. Cartwright clarified that it would take at least three years for Iran to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon.
All this is not to say Sanger’s article isn’t worth reading. In particular, this very important news is tucked away near the bottom:
The current draft of the [forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iran] also describes considerable division in Iran about whether the goal of the nuclear program should be to walk right up to the threshold of building an actual bomb — which would mean having highly enriched uranium on hand, along with a workable weapons design — or simply to keep enough low-enriched uranium on hand to preserve Tehran’s options for building a weapon later.
Such a debate is telling, since it indicates that the motivation — even for the hardliners — is to acquire a nuclear capability for its value as a deterrence.
The experts know that Iran is ruled by ruthless, repressive, and rational men interested in preserving their own rule. This is well worth remembering as the debate over whether to go to war with Iran heats up in Washington. Netanyahu will continue saying Iran is an existential threat ruled by a “messianic apocalyptic cult” hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and neoconservatives will continue to repeat this line.
It’s not a credible argument, though. Netanyahu’s own Defense Minister has publicly said Iran is not an existential threat, and the motivations of those who are trying to convince the United States to start another war are obvious enough. As Trita Parsi and Robert Wright have pointed out, advocates for war with Iran are now trying to frame this debate as a matter of “who should bomb Iran, not about whether Iran should be bombed.”