Jeffrey LewisHow Far is Iran From A Bomb?

Dafna Linzer has a long article in the Washington Post describing a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) placing an Iranian bomb a decade or so away:

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.


The new estimate … judg[es] that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before “early to mid-next decade,” according to four sources familiar with that finding.

Coming on the revelation that Iran plans to break UN seals and resume activities at the Esfahan (Isfahan) uranium conversion facility, this is reassuring.

Just one question: When did US intelligence think an Iranian bomb was less than five years away?

Linzer claims Admiral Lowell Jacoby testified that Iran was “within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon,” but that is not what he said.

Jacoby testified “Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade.”

So lets compare:

Author Date Estimate
DIA Director Lowell Jacoby February 2005 ”… early in the next decade.”
2005 National Intelligence Estimate August 2005 ”… early to mid-next decade.”

Wow, the IC really revised that estimate, huh?

In fact, unclassified and classified estimates leaked to press have always suggested Iran’s nuclear program was a next decade issue. For example, A Primer on the Future Threat, The Decades Ahead: 1999-2020 (Defense Intelligence Agency, July 1999, SECRET/NO FORN) concluded Iran was a decade away from producing enough fissile material:

Iran probably will not have the capability to indigenously produce a nuclear weapon before 2009 based on the known status of its R&D efforts.

Deadly Arsenals (Carnegie Endowement, 2005) reviews the rest of the classified and unclassified assessments that have been made public, so that I don’t have to. (The 2002 edition is available free).


Linzer can be forgiven for sexing up the lead, because the reporting is otherwise solid.

One thing that I found interesting: She cites three US sources to say “The estimate expresses uncertainty about whether Iran’s ruling clerics have made a decision to build a nuclear arsenal”—an argument ACW has been pimping.

Instead of data, most analysts assume Iran wants nuclear weapons based on theory—structural factors like prestige or US conventional superiority.

During Admiral Jacoby’s testimony, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) asked Jacoby, CIA Director Porter
Goss and Carol Rodley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, about evidence that Iran intended to build a bomb.

Dr. Freud would have loved these text-book examples of projection:

SEN. ROBERTS: … What I’m interested in—and both the vice chairman and I want to get into capabilities and whether or not we have the capability to determine some intelligence analysis on intent, as far as Iran’s intent to build a nuclear weapon.

It sounds like there might be a difference of opinion between you three. I’m not suggesting that, but at least that might be the case. I would ask all three of you to give us your assessment of Iran’s intent, to characterize your confidence in that judgment. If you feel that should be better handled in a classified session, I’d certainly appreciate it.

MR. GOSS: Mr. Chairman, I would limit my answer. I think there is something I would say that is obvious. There are other players in the neighborhood that are very concerned that also have views about what Iran is up to. And it’s important that we understand what that might lead to.

I believe that having watched the pride of some countries in acquiring the world-stage status of having nuclear weapons and what that has meant for nationalism and leadership is that it becomes almost a piece of the holy grail for a small country that otherwise might be victimized, living in a dangerous neighborhood, to have a nuclear weapon.

So in my view, there is an inclination, a very strong inclination by the conservative leadership, present conservative leadership of Iran, to make sure that they can live up to the same level as some of their neighboring countries. And some of those neighboring countries—indeed, Pakistan comes to mind—have the bomb.


MR. JACOBY: I would join Director Goss in terms of the intent. We did some work recently looking at the direction that threats were going, and they are going away from conventional force-on-force confrontation strategy with the United States towards terrorism on one end and nuclear weapons, and not only the status but the perceived deterrent value that comes with them.

So I would join the director in terms of intent in Iran and would also say that we’re engaged in a hard look at sequentially nuclear programs or suspected nuclear programs of various countries. Iran is next on our agenda. And I believe that our look and the committee’s look will probably coincide, and we look forward to working that together.


MS. RODLEY: I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said. I would merely add that another element that makes this harder to get at is the advantage of ambiguity when it comes to nuclear programs. The Iranians don’t necessarily have to have a successful nuclear program in order to have the deterrent value. They merely have to convince us, others and their neighbors that they do. This is a lesson that hasn’t been lost on them, and it merely complicates both the collection and the analysis on this issue.

Needless to say, the question of how we would respond in Iran’s place is an interesting exercise, but probably not very helpful.

All theory, no data. Sound familiar?


  1. JLo (History)

    Would you say projection is the defining characteristic of the current foreign policy players in the US?

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Linzer dodged the question in the chat:

    Washington, D.C.: Ms. Linzer.

    You cite Admiral Jacoby as saying Iran was “within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon.”

    But, Jacoby actually testified, that “Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade.”

    ”… early in the next decade” is a lot closer to ”… early to mid-next decade” [and] not really “roughly doubling the estimate” as you suggest.

    I do wish reporters would critically examine motives for leaks.

    Dafna Linzer: Hi, Jacoby’s assessment of early in the next decade put the timeframe around 2010. By extending it to now include mid-decade, the timeframe is now around 2015. That’s the difference and it is believed to be an important one inside the intelligence community and reflective of the desires of analysts to review and revise their work as they learn more about the program.

  3. jay denari (History)


    It certainly seems that way to me, too.

    Although Dr. Lewis mentioned the prestige and conventional superiority arguments re: why Iran might want the Bomb, I think it’s something even more basic—they feel threatened and have seen that possessing nukes makes countries all but unattackable.

    There’s a discussion of similar issues here where I expand on this idea.