THE HEADLINE for the lead story in yesterday's Washington Post was "Iran Is Judged 10 Years from Nuclear Bomb." The story itself is based on leaked portions of a January 2005 national intelligence estimate (NIE) on Iran, whose annex apparently contains a revised assessment by American intelligence of the time Iran needs to produce a nuclear weapon. Previous estimates had Iran possibly producing a weapon in five years or less. There are several points worth noting about this story.
* First, the Post sets this revised estimate off against "forceful public statements by the White House" and "administration officials" that "Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal." But, of course, the two are not in contradiction with each other. The fact that the intelligence community is increasing the estimated time it would take Iran to build a weapon does not undercut in any way the fact that Tehran seems determined to have nuclear weapons. As the story itself notes, a senior intelligence official "familiar with the findings said that 'it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons.'"
* Second, it is difficult to take any comfort in this new assessment. The fact is--and as both the estimate apparently admits and the presidential commission on wmd recently reported--U.S. intelligence knows very little about what is going on Iran. In fact, according to the Post story, in 2002, the intelligence community prepared a paper on the possibility of "regime change" in Iran and "described the Islamic republic [as] on a slow march toward democracy." As events in Iran since then have made clear, just the opposite has happened. Moderates and so-called pragmatists have lost power, having been purged from Iran's parliament and largely shut out of the presidential election.
Indeed, given how little we know, the intelligence community estimate is just as likely to be wrong as right when it comes to predicting Iran's program. Remember, US intelligence on Iraq first missed how close Saddam was to having a bomb prior to the first Gulf War before overestimating Iraq's WMD program in the run up to the second war. Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Israeli intelligence had also adjusted its estimates of Iran's program. According to the paper, Israeli intelligence is now saying, "Iran will probably have a nuclear bomb by 2012, but could have the capability as early as 2008." If Iran has a blueprint for a bomb in hand--which is not improbable given the already wide proliferation of a dependable Chinese design--then all that really remains to be done is for Iran to complete its uranium enrichment program.
* Third, lest we forget, one reason the Bush administration promulgated the possibility of military preemption in its strategic doctrine was the fact that, in this day and age, one could not count on timely warning of when states or terrorist groups might be on the verge of obtaining a devastating capability that puts America and its allies in serious danger. With denial and deception capabilities in our adversaries growing, and the seeming holes in U.S. intelligence's collection capabilities, senior policymakers will rarely, if ever, be able to count on getting "date certains" to guide key decisions. All of which returns us to the fact that we have to keep an eye on the bigger picture: What kind of regime is Iran? What is the history we do know of its clandestine nuclear program? What are its avowed aims toward the U.S. and our allies? Why is it developing a ballistic missile warhead capable of delivering a nuclear weapon? And, last, what remains of its ties to and support for terrorists?
None of this means that the U.S. should be planning an attack tomorrow. There are numerous practical problems we would confront in carrying out that decision, even if that were in theory the right one to make. But it does mean that we have no reason to relax, nor can we postpone difficult decisions indefinitely.
Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century.