The Obama White House is enlisting all its allies to make its case for the bad nuclear deal with Iran that, say administration allies, is better than no deal. The alternative, they claim, is war. And to what purpose? Many nuclear experts, Middle East analysts, and journalists argue, after all, that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would set the program back only two to three years. Indeed, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, asserted last week that setting Iran back “only a couple of years” is “the best-case scenario.”
However, it’s not entirely clear where that assessment—a couple years, or a few years, or two to three years—comes from. “When U.S. government officials have given specific estimates, like two to three years, these are for an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities,” says Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon official. “They’re not talking about a U.S. attack, which would obviously be more than what an Israeli strike could accomplish.”
Even then, says Kroenig, author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, these estimates regarding American strikes are based on worst-case scenarios. “That is, if after a strike Iran decides to rebuild immediately, encounters no significant difficulties, and is able to get whatever it needs in the international marketplace. But that’s hard to imagine.”
Kroenig, who worked on defense policy and strategy against Iran in the office of the secretary of defense, says it’s misleading that many experts claim the American estimates are the best-case scenarios when actually they’re worst-case scenarios. “Either these experts don’t know,” says Kroenig, “or they do know and they’re trying to make a case that is not intellectually honest.”
The larger point, say advocates of the White House’s proposed agreement and opponents of a military strike, is that once a nuclear program reaches a certain stage, you can’t undo the know-how that has already been acquired. That is, you can’t bomb knowledge.
Even proponents of a military strike concede there’s something to that argument. “The longer we go without doing something, the bigger Iran’s edge becomes,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “For instance, the closer they get to perfecting advanced centrifuges, the efficacy of any military strike goes down. More people will have the necessary knowledge to continue.”
During his speech to Congress earlier this month, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed this very issue, noting the argument that “Iran’s nuclear know-how cannot be erased, that its nuclear program is so advanced that the best we can do is delay the inevitable.” But as Netanyahu then suggested, “nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much.”
Here “infrastructure” is perhaps best understood to mean not only the facilities, equipment, and personnel necessary to run a nuclear weapons program, but also any given nation’s industrial and technological culture, its economy, and perhaps most important the society that produces them. The Islamic Republic of Iran comes up short in all these vital areas. And that’s why it has taken Tehran 25 years to buy, steal, and smuggle a nuclear weapons program from the outside world. The notion that it would take Iran only two to three years to restore a program it has taken more than two decades and tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to build does not add up.
The idea that you can’t bomb knowledge is correct, says the journalist David Samuels. “But it also signals a larger misunderstanding about what part of making nuclear bombs is difficult.”
A few years ago, Samuels, a contributing editor to the left-leaning Harper’s, wrote a profile for the New Yorker of John Coster-Mullen, a truck driver who reverse-engineered Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
“All the leading scientists at Los Alamos say he got it right,” says Samuels. “He’s a very bright man, but he has no recondite knowledge of physics.” Rather, it was Coster-Mullen’s experience as a commercial photographer that allowed him to reconstruct the two bombs by decoding old documents.