Today, U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the next round of unilateral sanctions taking aim at Iran's energy sector. With this bill, Washington is seeking to stem what many view as Tehran's imminent nuclear future. But how imminent is that future, exactly?
Some would say it is very imminent. On June 27, CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that it would take Iran approximately two years to build a nuclear bomb if it made the decision to do so. The Wall Street Journal seized on his statement, warning hysterically on June 29 that "Iran stands barely two years from an atomic bomb that could target Israel, Europe and beyond."
Pundits, too, have consistently claimed that Iran is just around the corner from acquiring nukes. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, urgently warned in July 2004, "Iran will go nuclear during the next presidential term." In January 2006, he claimed, "Iran is probably just months away." A few months later, in September, when no bomb appeared, he wrote, "The decision is no more than a year away." William Kristol, Niall Ferguson, and John Bolton, among others, have made similar claims -- and been similarly proved wrong by the passage of time.
In fact, it is much harder to build a deliverable weapon than most pundits assume. Panetta's estimate leans toward the worst-case scenario, in which the weapons-building process proceeds perfectly smoothly. But the best expert assessments indicate that it would actually take Iran about three to five years to develop a nuclear bomb. Here's how that process would probably unfold -- and the reasons why it's not likely to happen in the timeline the doomsayers would have you believe.
Step 1: The Decision
Iran is certainly moving to acquire the technology that would enable it to make a weapon. But, as a 2009 Joint Threat Assessment by the EastWest Institute concludes, "[I]t is not clear whether [Iran] has taken the decision to produce nuclear weapons. "The regime must weigh the political and security costs of developing nuclear weapons before moving ahead. And Iran might decide, like Japan, that its needs are best served by approaching the threshold of building a bomb (acquiring the technical capability and know-how) but not actually crossing the line and risking an arms race among its rivals or a pre-emptive attack from the United States or Israel.
"Nobody knows if Iran has taken this decision," Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Agence France-Press on June 28. "It's more in their interest to have this ambiguity."