Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover article in the Atlantic about the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran has provoked fierce debate. One key issue is the likely timing of Israeli action, if it is to occur at all. Goldberg reports a consensus among the officials he interviewed that “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” That is not exactly a firm timetable, but it hinges on an assessment that Iran’s nuclear program is fast approaching “the point of no return”—which is the title of Goldberg’s piece.
Some observers, like James Fallows, also of the Atlantic, come to a very different conclusion. “My instinct,” he writes, is “to view time as an asset for our side, not theirs.” If we keep a close watch, time “keeps giving us one more day—and month, and year—for pressures and incentives to work, for the regime to weaken, and for our government to think through in a calm and Ike-like way exactly what we will do if time runs out.”
Fallows completely rules out the possibility that our ability to assess Iranian nuclear progress might be flawed: “No one has plausibly suggested that Iran can produce a bomb utterly without warning, overnight.”
Is Fallows right? The track record of U.S. intelligence in predicting major nuclear events, including some that came “utterly without warning, overnight,” does not exactly inspire confidence. Among the milestones of the nuclear age that the CIA failed to foresee were the first Soviet A-bomb test in 1949, the first Soviet H-bomb test in 1953, the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964, and the first Indian nuclear test in 1974. Before 1991, the CIA disastrously underestimated the progress of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. In 2002, it committed the same disastrous error in reverse, seeing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when there were none. In 2007, it declared that Iran had halted its nuclear program in 2004 when it clearly did not.
Time may be on our side in dealing with Iran—but then again it may not. We are being asked to gamble that we will not suffer a rude awakening. For an analyst as thoughtful as James Fallows to assert categorically that we will not be taken by surprise is itself a surprise. One might even call it an intelligence failure.