Predicting when Iran will get the bomb has been a popular activity for politicians, strategists, analysts, and the public for some time now. Unfortunately, these predictions are frequently politicized and exploited to justify increased investments in long-range missile defenses, unilateral sanctions, and even military strikes.
Last month, a report released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities concluded that a deployable Iranian ICBM is more than a decade away. The study, authored by former UN weapons inspector Mike Elleman, states that “Iran is not likely to field a liquid-fueled missile capable of targeting Western Europe before 2014 or 2015… Iran is many years away from developing a ‘second-generation’ 4,000-5,000 km intermediate-range solid-propellant missile, if it should decide to do so.” It goes on to say that “many years” has historically been around ten, and thus concludes that since Iran would develop and field an intermediate range missile before developing an ICBM, “a notional Iranian ICBM, based on No-Dong and Scud technologies, is more than a decade away from development.” The report also separates the development of ballistic missile technologies from the development of nuclear capabilities, saying it can only “appear” that these two programs are linked, but that this cannot be confirmed by the IAEA, and is in fact denied by Iran.
This analysis helps to clarify statements put forward by public officials, which are often stripped of crucial context and twisted by the media in an effort to make an Iranian nuclear weapon seem right around the corner.
For example, in a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on April 14, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright claimed that Iran is currently between two and five years from producing something that could actually produce a nuclear explosion, and would also need three years to develop a reliable means of delivery (such as a missile). Cartwright followed these statements with a note that should Iran simultaneously pursue the construction and the means of delivery of a weapon, the two estimates could be lumped together to produce a final minimum of three to five years.
Complicated and nuanced language on the pace of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs has created never-ending opportunities for the media to overstate the imminence of the threat and over exaggerate certain milestones in Iran’s programs. For instance, while Iran might be able to obtain enough bomb-grade material within a year for a potential weapon, Fox News has falsely interpreted this as synonymous with the completion of an actual deliverable nuclear weapon. This misinformation is in turn used to bludgeon skeptics of long-range missile defenses and supporters of smart, targeted sanctions against the Iranian regime.
The IISS report has elucidated in writing the stages of the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb (should Iran decide to make one)—something much needed in a field where estimates are easily misconstrued, and extreme precision is needed when answering the question: “when will Iran have a nuclear weapon?”
Nevertheless, just last week, the press surged with media interpretations of the IAEA’s report on Iran, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” released on May 31, 2010. Characteristically, the imminence of the threat was exaggerated beyond the findings of the report, with headlines such as “U.N. Says Iran Has Fuel for 2 Nuclear Weapons.” Stay tuned for further analysis.