With Israel, the U.S. and Great Britain ramping up psy-ops against Tehran in the form of leaked strike planning, the IAEA is set to release its latest and most unambiguous report on the Iranian nuclear program to date. According to advanced word, the IAEA report offers new and convincing evidence of Iranian weaponization intentions. It is a mistake to dismiss such intelligence out of hand, as has become the habit in the post-Iraq WMD environment. After all, despite serious doubts at the time, the consensus of serious observers seems to be that the Syrian site attacked by Israel in 2007 was in fact an undeclared nuclear reactor under construction, as U.S. and Israeli intelligence services maintained.
Still, intelligence can be instrumentalized or just plain wrong. What's more, the disagreements over the Iranian nuclear program are exceptionally complex and opaque, and all the various sides of the policy debate have in the past used exaggerated and hyperbolic arguments to make their case. So in the interests of keeping things anchored to reality, I thought I'd offer the following as a sort of "skeptic's primer" of the arguments you're likely to hear from all sides of the debate that will inevitably unfold in the next few weeks:
- An Iranian bomb is imminent. For now, the Iranian nuclear program seems to be following an "inching toward the threshold" model, whereby all the various technical components required for a nuclear weapon are mastered, leaving only a final "breakout" effort to assemble them once the window of opportunity has closed for the international community to prevent it. That has created a widespread but not-uncontested consensus that Iran has at least the intention of being able to assemble a nuclear weapon if it feels the need to, which in itself would effectively offer Tehran a nuclear deterrent even in the absence of an actual bomb. Nevertheless, the Iranian uranium-enrichment effort is uneven and continues to be plagued by technical obstacles. Its delivery systems are far from reliable enough to create a credible deterrent. And the bomb designs that have been identified in previous intelligence reports are crude and unwieldy. It bears noting, too, that the timeline for an "imminent" Iranian nuclear weapon has been locked in at between two to four years for more than a decade, meaning that alarmists have been both consistent and wrong for that time.