Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again)

Summary:  We see another round of news about Iran getting the bomb. Just as they would have the bomb in a few years — ever since 1984.  Of course, all these threats to bomb Iran probably only increase their interest in getting the bomb.  A perfect example of American geopolitical strategy, ensuring what we’re trying to prevent.  You’ll find reading this an easier cure for amnesia than a knock on the head. This is the third in a series; at the end are links to the other chapters.



  1. Today’s hot news: no Iranian nukes.
  2. Flashback to 1984.
  3. Flashback to 1992.
  4. Flashback to 2009.
  5. Past predictions about Iran’s nukes.
  6. For more information.

(1) Today’s hot news: Iran not building a nuke

An amazing characteristic of many US journalists is their amnesia, writing news as if the past never happened. Today’s example is “Coming Around On Iran“, Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, 15 January 2010 — Excerpt…

“Three U.S. and two foreign counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK that, as soon as next month, the intel agencies are expected to complete an ‘update’ to their controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran ‘halted its nuclear weapons program’ in 2003 and ‘had not restarted’ it as of mid-2007.”

This is hot news, just as it was in 1992, 2006 and 2009. And will be next year. The point is not that Iran’s bomb projects are not serious, nor of concern to us. But rather a more serious problem is our willingness to accept the flimsiest propaganda, even to the extent of forgetting the last ten rounds of exaggerations and outright lies. Our weaknesses might be the greatest threat to the Republic. We can and must do better, which will drive our institutions (e.g., government and press) to higher standards.

(2)  Flashback to 1984

“Iran is engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years, according to press reports in the Persian Gulf last week.”
— Jane’s Defense Weekly, 24 April 1984.

Four years later, the world was again put on notice, this time by Iraq, that Tehran was at the nuclear threshold, and in 1992 the CIA foresaw atomic arms in Iranian hands by 2000.  Then U.S. officials pushed that back to 2003.  And in 1997 the Israelis confidently predicted a new date — 2005.

— “Ever a ‘threat,’ never an atomic power, Iran points up challenges of nuclear technology“, AP, 27 February 2007 (red emphasis added)

(3)  Flashback to 1992

Bad Intelligence – But in Which Direction?“, Justin Logan, Cato, 24 August 2006.

Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger {NYT, WaPo} at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is–and in which direction it’s been wrong.

Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat. Here are just a few assessments:

  1. “Late 1991:  In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of 2 to 3 nuclear weapons.’ A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these 2 or 3 nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”
  2. “February 24, 1993:  CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”
  3. “January 1995:  The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”
  4. “January 5, 1995:  U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”
  5. “April 29, 1996:  Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”
  6. “October 21, 1998:  General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years. ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”
  7. “January 17, 2000:  A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons. The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

It goes on for 4 pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure. But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran’s capability. Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.

(4)  Flashback to 2009

U.S. now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bomb“, Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2009 — “In a reversal since a 2007 report, U.S. officials expect the Islamic Republic to reach development milestones this year.”

Needless to say, 11 months later we have no public evidence of significant development milestones achieved in 2009.  Worse, this story was obvious propaganda even when published — as I show with much detail in Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice? (16 February 2009).

(5)  A history of flawed predictions about atomic weapons

For more information about the history of forecasting our enemies atomic weapon programs, see these books.

  1. Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (2009) by Michael D. Gordin (Assc Prof, History, Princeton) — Review here at the New York Times.
  2. Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea by Jeffrey T. Richelson, 702 pp (2006) — I esp recommend reading this excellent review (essentially a stand-alone analysis):  “The Secrets of the Bomb“, Jeremy Bernstein, New York Review of Books, 25 May 2006

Of course there were some accurate predictions as to when the USSR would get the bomb.  Such as…

How long, we may ask, is it likely that this advantage will rest with the United States? In the Debate on the Address I hazarded the estimate that it would be three or four years. According to the best information I have been able to obtain, I see no reason to alter that estimate, and certainly none to diminish it …
— Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons on 7 November 1945 (source: Hansard website of debates in Parliament)

US Government Policy

(6)  For more information

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19 thoughts on “Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again)”

  1. Apparently, the Iranian nuclear program is just like Sisyphus… eternally just about to create a Nuke, but never getting there.

    1. Somewhere there’s undoubtedly an ancient Spartan document warning that the Persians will be in possession of the secret of Greek Fire within 5 years.

  2. Burke G Sheppard

    I think a nuclear weapon in the hands of the present Iranian regime would be a bad thing, but if it is five years away then there is relatively little to fear. Neither the regime in Tehran nor the regime in Washington is likely to be in power in five years.

  3. I find it odd that Mark Hosenball writes the following in his Newsweek report: “Yet two of the U.S. sources caution the new assessment will likely be ‘Talmudic’ in its parsing.”

    Notice the quote he takes from his sources. Wouldn’t this reinforce in the minds of some that the desire to hit Iran is being driven by a certain foreign nation and its loyal US supporters?
    FM reply: Nice catch! An inadvertent slip? Or coded message to his readers?

  4. Jane’s Defence Weekly claimed that IRan was on the verge of having a bomb…in 1984. Read more of these predictions at IranAffairs.
    FM reply: Great article! Thank you for posting it here.

  5. Iran needs nuclear energy, not weapons“, Le Monde diplolatique, November 2005:

    Iran is to be denied enrichment capacity regardless of whether IAEA inspectors have found actual evidence of a weapons programme in Iran. Why? Because the technology could be used to make bombs. In this form the accusation against Iran is almost irrefutable: practically any advanced technology could be used in a nuclear programme. Iran has allegedly been just five years away from building nukes for the past 25 years.

  6. Just like we used to say in the intel community, “Brazil is always the country of the future.”

  7. H.G. did it better …

    NO one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

  8. Any country (even a relatively backward one like Iran) could “have the bomb in five years.” It took less than that time to invent it the first time around, with the Manhattan Project! Today, nuclear weapons are old technology, older than the transistor. Zillions of them have been made, so people know how to make them.

    Still, it makes a nice propoganda headline.

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