Joshua PollackWhy Iran's Clock Keeps Resetting

I’ve never asked, but am willing to bet that the good folks at The Bulletin get a fair bit of grief over the Doomsday Clock. Seeing as we’ve been at five minutes to midnight since 2007 (the typical snide question presumably goes) just how it is that the world keeps turning?

That’s the problem with having a deterministic thing like a clock symbolize a probabilistic notion like risk. Either way, trying to shake people out of their complacency is a pretty good way to draw charges of sensationalism. Sometimes with justice. Sometimes not.

This brings us to Gal Beckerman’s analysis of the Iran nuclear clock in the Forward:

[E]arlier this month, it was revealed that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s [INR] latest estimate has pushed that dreaded date back to 2013, when it posits that Iran will finally be able to produce highly enriched uranium [HEU], a key ingredient in any nuclear weapon…

What some see as the fine point of when exactly Iran gets the bomb is not inconsequential. The time frame for both diplomacy and a military response that would have serious ramifications hinge on this question. It is for this reason, a wide range of independent observers agree, that politics has played the most central role in how intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program is interpreted and packaged for the public.

“Clearly the fact that some of these assessments seem to change rather rapidly has fueled the suspicion that much of it is actually politically motivated,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

Let’s not dwell on the fussy stuff, like the existence of fissile material other than HEU, INR’s position being a dissent from an Intelligence Community (IC) consensus, or this particular conclusion’s origins in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), not the April 2009 Questions for the Record (QFR) that Beckerman is thinking of. That would be, you know, fussy. Instead, let’s try to clarify a few key concepts.

First, what do these dates represent? Do they tell us “when exactly Iran gets the bomb,” as Beckerman puts it?

No. These dates refer to when Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon,” in the words of the 2007 NIE Key Judgments. Not when it will do so. This is a rather important distinction. Just for example, something we do learn from the 2009 QFR is that INR, at least, doesn’t think Iran is terribly likely to pursue this course. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

The bottom line is, it would be a mistake to imagine that we are destined to wake up one day between 2010 and 2015 (IC consensus) or between 2013 and 2015 (INR’s view) to learn of an Iranian nuclear test. Or at least, that’s not what the estimate conveys.

Second, is there any rational basis for these numbers? Aren’t they just plucked out of the air, as some would have us believe?

Documents are the greatest things. When you read them, you get information about stuff. Like what’s in the documents. In the 2007 NIE, it says:

We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities—rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.

And the recent QFR explains that INR thinks this capability is unlikely to be realized before 2013 because “Outfitting a covert enrichment infrastructure could take years.”

Now we know.

Third, why do estimates of when Iran will be able to produce fissile material tend to slide to the right as time passes? Isn’t it just a matter of serial sensationalism?

Some of the rhetoric of senior officials in the U.S. and Israel could be explained in those terms. But changes in more considered estimates like the NIE are probably better explained in terms of two other things: A) Having progressively more insight into the Iranian program and the difficulties it faces, which allows some easing back from worst-case estimates, and B) Changes in the facts themselves.

What sort of facts have changed in the last few years? Most obviously, Iran’s work on centrifuges was suspended for a couple of years, ca. 2004 to 2006. Little visible headway was being made at that time. More subtly, perhaps, some obstacles seem to have been thrown in Iran’s path along the way, especially since the end of that suspension. There are many examples of stories to this effect. Just look around

All these matters are, I think, reasonably clear upon examination. But let’s entertain no illusions that reporters will stop tripping over them anytime soon.


  1. Hass (History)

    These predictions about when Iran will get the bomb are so ridiculous that even The Onion has spoofed them.

    The problem is of confusing capability with intent – deliberately and for polical reasons. Iran had been judged to be just 2 years away from the bomb for the last 25 years. Never happened. So, now we’re supposed to pull our hair because Iran is judged to be 2 years away from the “capability” to have have the “option” of building a nuke if they so “intend” and in “secret”. Talk about a nonsense charge so vague and open-ended it can apply to 10 other countries in addition to Iran. You don’t need a BIA to tell you something so inane – a Magic 8 Ball will more than suffice.

    From the Bulletin

    All states possessing nuclear weapons—and additionally, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands—have enrichment facilities, and Iran has publicized its first steps toward that end. All states possessing nuclear weapons also reprocess spent fuel; in addition, Japan, a non-nuclear weapon state, has reprocessing facilities. HEU is still a component of research reactors at about 100 sites worldwide. In a technical sense, the above facilities contribute to the latency of non-nuclear weapon states in their potential to acquire nuclear weapons. But latency should be considered to be the product of such technical capability and the intent to proceed toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

  2. Hass (History)

    Incidentally, where would Iran get the unaccounted-for uranium for the “covert” enrichment facilities? The uranium fairy?

  3. Josh (History)

    Even the Onion? What do you have against the Onion?

    The estimate under discussion has been in place for about two years now and it hasn’t moved. That is the point of the post. I encourage everyone to suppress their knee-jerks just long enough to permit reading comprehension.

    As for uranium, the estimate doesn’t say. We could infer that the LEU at Natanz would be used under the scenario being entertained.

    But as for the uranium fairy, hey, that’s where Iran got its current stocks, and there’s been concern that they might go back there.

    That’s a nice image, though.

    Please be careful with your knee-jerks. You might bruise your chin.

  4. Scott Kemp (History)

    The problem with all these estimates is not the technical details of how long it takes to make a bomb. The primary uncertainty lies in whether Iran, if ever, will decide it wants a bomb and with what urgency. Estimates of Iran’s motivation are unpredictable because Iran’s motivations are mutable — they depend on factors that lay in the future, such as the tenor of U.S.-Iran relations.

  5. MK (History)

    The Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock is now set two minutes closer to midnight than during the year bracketing the disastrous summit between Kennedy & Krushchev and the Cuban missile crisis. Hello??!!

  6. Josh (History)

    Scott has it nailed. It’s a mistake to fixate on purely technical matters. Indeed, Iran has the sheer capacity to start enriching to HEU, well, right now. So true worst-case assessments need not apply.


    Being second-guessed in hindsight appears to be another hazard of setting a Doomsday Clock.

    Me, I prefer non-deterministic metaphors like Russian Roulette.

  7. scud

    Josh – thanks for a great post. Those in the comments section who compare Iran with Japan, Germany or the Netherlands obviously miss key points – including the absence of any civilian rationale for Natanz, the “alleged studies” (ask the IAEA Safeguards Divison what they think of that), the size of the Arak reactor, etc., etc. Giving possible dates for Iran to cross the threshold (if it ever decided to do so) can be compared to climate change “science”: we’re talking about models and scenarios given some specific parameters, not about predictions. If the parameters change, the scenarios change.

  8. hass (History)

    Sorry Josh but even this latest estimate is just one of a long series of other predictions that go back many years, according to which Iran was supposed to have nukes as early as 1992.

    And, this latest estimate is even more ridiculous because it frames the matter as one of mere “capability” to make nukes, which is open-ended and can apply to many countries in addition to Iran that have a nascent enrichment program (or, are the subject of prompted speculation about a magical secret covert enrichment program that no one seems to have any actual evidence for.)

    In short, the resetting of the clock is not due to “having progressively more insight into the Iranian nuclear program” but is instead due to a deliberate conflation of nuclear fuel programs with weapons-building, which is politically-motivated scaremongering intend to obfuscate the fact that there is no real evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran.

  9. Josh (History)

    Here’s another sabotage link that I should have included.

  10. hass (History)

    Arak has been inspected 3 times by the IAEA already, and it isn’t even built yet let alone within the 180-day safeguards rule. But pray tell, scud, why is there no “civilian rationale” for Natanz? Because Iran can simply import enriched uranium…from Russia, which even Cheney accused of practicing “energy blackmail” or from the US, which is even now considering energy blackmail against Iran in the form of gasoline sanctions? What exactly is the “civilian rationale” for the enrichment facilities in Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Germany, the US, France or Britain or the Netherlands which magically doesn’t apply to Iran?

  11. Josh (History)

    I also forgot to include this.

    My bad.

  12. scud

    Hass – There is no civilian rationale for Natanz TODAY and for the next 10 years. That is because Iran has currently no use for the LEU it produces there; it can’t and doesn’t need to use it for Bushehr and it has no other LEU-fuelled reactor. Oh, and Natanz at full capacity could fuel only one LWR. LEU produced at Natanz could of course be used for a future Iranian LWR. But that could not be before at least 10 years. That’s a big, factual difference with Brazil, Argentina, France, the US, Japan, Germany, etc.
    So why is Iran rushing to enrichment?

  13. Josh (History)

    More catch-up here.

    I was totally remiss in not pointing that Jeff tackled an earlier version of this question over two years ago, right here at ACW.

    At least I remembered before he said anything to me about it. Not that he would.

  14. hass (History)

    Scud: First of all, 10 years is not a very long time to plan for a country’s energy requirements — and Iran would have been far ahead in its nuclear program if not due to sanctions etc. And, Argentina doesn’t have reactors powered by LEU, and yet they’re recently developing uranium enrichment technology. [Atucha I is powered by natural uranium and more recently, slightly-enriched uranium at .85% 235U(compared with 0.72% 235U in natural uranium) and the Embalse is a CANDU reactor powered by natural uranium.]

    Iran’s enrichment program dates back to the SHAH and is far behind schedule. Rather than “rushing,” Iran had offered to restrict and slowdown its enrichment program. According to ElBaradei

    I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, “Iran will buckle under pressure.” But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride.

    You don’t first build reactors, then figure out how to fuel them later. Anyway, according to Sec of State Clinton, Iran doesn’t have the right to enrich uranium at all even if highly monitored by the IAEA. Needless to say, the Iranians disagree.

  15. hass (History)

    As a side note, does any country really “need” to have their own enrichment? Brazil imports its enriched uranium. France, US, Germany, Netherlands, Canada can all do so too. They’re not. Obviously, they must be making nukes. Right?

  16. nick (History)

    It is categorically wrong to assume that you don’t work on enrichment because you have fuel coming from somewhere else. First, at the current rate Natanz will not be finished—all 54K P1s—until probably 2015. Moreover, LEU fuel in the form of UO2 can be stored or sold in the open market. Finally, if Iran continues with HWR, as in Canada and India, natural uranium blended with SEU will give a much better efficiency in neutron budget and uranium conversion to energy. So there are political as well as technical reasons to continue this work.

  17. Josh (History)

    I don’t imagine that it’s possible to change closed minds, but feel compelled to point out the obvious regardless. Who knows? Maybe someone else will get some benefit from reading this.

    If the sort of reasoning given above applies to Iran, then it applies to every country with nuclear power stations or plans to acquire them. Yet very few countries that use nuclear power feel the need to acquire the nuclear fuel cycle. They buy their fuel. It’s much cheaper that way, and disposal services can be negotiated to go with.

    Moreover, Iran’s plans for nuclear power generation leave it absolutely no choice but to import uranium, in whatever form. There’s simply not enough in the ground in Iran.

    Today, Iran is under international sanctions. It cannot legally import or export anything nuclear-related, and faces other restrictions besides. A military Damocles’ sword hangs over the country on account of these policies. This is the price Iran is paying for its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle — all after flatly turning down the European fuel supply assurances offered in 2005.

    (Remember, Iran’s uranium has to come from somewhere, and what’s in the ground in Iran is insufficient. So it’s no use protesting that those Europeans aren’t trustworthy. If this is about power generation, there’s no choice but to import.)

    Now, there are plausible explanations for this behavior other than seeking to build nuclear weapons at the earliest date possible. National pride and domestic politics are important considerations.

    But economic rationales? Have mercy.

    I think we’ve now exhausted this vein.

  18. Arnold Evans (History)

    There are certainly countries that can supply unenriched uranium that Iran considers more reliable than depending upon enriched uranium from Europe or Russia.

    This argument has the flavor of: the West is hostile towards the idea of Iran enriching uranium, therefore Iran should not enrich uranium.

    Western hostility towards Iran is more, not less reason for Iran to ensure that its fuel supply cannot be held hostage by the West and Russia.

  19. Azr@el (History)

    To play the devil’s advocate, if I were in the Teheran I wouldn’t trust European Fuel Assurances any farther than I could chuck the whole of their parliament in Brussels. I can accuse the Mullah’s of many transgressions, but being fools is not one of them. They understand that we will never let them have a nuclear industry period regardless of our rhetoric of the moment. To drive home the point, consider our latest drive to impose gasoline sanctions on the IRI, does that address the commentators points about energy assurances.

    Iran is not just any government, it is a government built on opposition to U.S. hegemony, Pax Americana for those of a previous generation, in the ilk of Cuba, DPRK, etc. And some of you from various nations may not agree with the excess of our Hegemony, but every rational human being still appreciates the benefits of having America as the leader of the free world. And those regimes which are antithetical to the peace brought about by U.S. unipolarity must go and will go, especially Iran. I think by the time of the next election we may see a solution to our Iran problem.

  20. Pirouz (History)


    Acquisition of uranium and mastery of the fuel cycle are two completely different issues. I don’t quite understand the need to link them, other than to make a case where there isn’t one.

    The sanctions that Iran is enduring are political in nature. Iran objects to them based upon what it perceives as its legal rights under the NPT.

    Due to Iran’s past experiences with the US and its European allies, Iran has at times expressed reluctance to put itself in a position of reliance for sensitive elements of its energy needs. This has been particularly evident during certain times frames of the diplomatic process. And given the history of these relations, it can be stated that Iran’s position is understandable. Moreover, these are international considerations, not entirely issues of “national pride” and “domestic issues” as you make them out to be.

    Economic rationales are not entirely out of the equation. Projecting into the mid to long term, mastering the fuel cycle provides Iran with an entry into the international fuel trade, which offers the potential of a considerable political return, as well.

    A number of prominent nations “feel the need to acquire the nuclear fuel cycle”. Iran seeks entry into this exclusive club. It should be pointed out that Iran wishes to do so, within the legal framework of the NPT. There is a hostile neighbor in the region that has flatly rejected acceptance to this collective security agreement, notably the case of Israel, which for decades now has operated a domestic program devoted to the manufacture of WMDs.

  21. Lysander (History)

    @ Josh. I’m no expert at all. But my understanding is that, while enriched uranium can only be purchased from a few places, yellow cake is available in numerous countries. Under the current sanctions regime, Iran could potentially purchase yellow cake covertly.

    Also, it may be that the U.S./Europe will not be in a position to enforce their wished for sanctions on everyone forever.

  22. Arch Roberts (History)

    Two points.

    Hass’s useful posts concentrate on Iran’s uncertainty regarding the reliable supply of nuclear fuel being the prime motivator of its pursuit of enrichment. Those of us old enough remember Amb. Dick Kennedy’s pursuit of the goal of “reliable supply” to justify Japan’s, and subsequently EURATOM’s, agreements with the US to provide “programmatic approval” of material transfers rather than the case-by-case approach imposed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1979 (NNPA). It’s at the least ironic that hass and the late Amb. Kennedy agree on and understand the rationale, namely that “reliable supply” should reduce the drive for an independent enrichment and/or reprocessing capability as a matter of sovereignty.

    Secondly, I agree with Scott Kemp that Iran controls the “clock.” It’s just not within the ability of outside powers to coerce Iran into adhering to some prescribed notion of its nuclear technology development. In this case Iran is no different from Germany or Japan. The difference occurs, of course, when one tries to divine Iran’s intentions in the light of its security situation, and Iran has a long way to go to dispel suspicions regarding its intentions. I remind you all again that the IAEA has found Iran to be in violation of its safeguards commitments, by a vote of the Board that sent the issue to the UN Security Council. No amount of quibbling on these pages can undo that decision, which was not taken lightly.

    To risk another misappropriation of a Chinese proverb, Iran has tied the knot, and it’s Iran’s responsibility to untie it.

  23. hass (History)

    Guys, really what this debate about “IRanian” intentions/capabilities etc. misses is the larger picture that has been DELIBERATELY ignored both by the media and the arms control community. The conflict with Iran is part of a greater context: a battle between developed and developing nations in controlling the FUEL cycle (not weapons, FUEL.) Developing countries accuse the US and other countries that wish to limit/restrict the fuel cycle of using scaremongering about nuclear weapons production as a PRETEXT to create a monopoly on nuclear fuel, the sole energy source of the future.

    That’s why developing nations have rejects both OBama’s and Bush’s plans to limit nuclear enrichment. That’s why the Non-Aligned Movement, which represents the majority of the world’s nations, has expressed support for Iran.

    This is a conflict that goes back a long time, pre-Iran controversy. The language of Article IV was drafted specifically to addresses the concerns of developing nations that the NPT would not be used to create two classes of countries when it came to civilian nuclear technology. The initial drafts of the article were vague but the developing nations specifically pressed to firm-up the wording (by adding the world “facilitate” for example) in order to emphasize the the NPT required an active commitment by the nuclear-armed countries to share nuclear technology. The developed nations instead created the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a nuclear technology cartel. In reaction to the formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (and the Carter administration’s efforts to limit sharing nuclear technology) the Final Document of the United Nations General Assembly resolution S-10/2 which was adopted at the 27th plenary meeting of the 10th special session on 30 June 1978 stated in paragraph 69:

    “Each country’s choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel-cycle policies.”

    This language was reiterated in the final document of the 1980 NPT Review Conference and has been consistently reiterated in every Review Conference since then, including the 1995 Review Conference , the 2000 NPT Review Conference and in the Final Document of the 10th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2002.

    (And, according to some, the prospects of a division of the world between nuclear fuel cycle haves and not-haves is itself driving countries to develop the technology.)

    UNtil we’re willing to talk about this issue of the North-South conflict over the nuclear fuel cycle, and place the debate about Iran in this broader context, and instead talking nonsense about how Iran “could” make weapons (so “could” Lesotho) and speculating about the technicalities, we’re missing the bigger point and being misdirected — and I suspect deliberately so.

  24. hass (History)

    ArchRoberts — may I also remind you that the IAEA has consistently stated that Iran’s safeguard violations were not related to a weapons program, that no nuclear material was diverted to non-peaceful uses (and therefore legally Iran was in compliance with the NPT and the referal to the UNSC was ultravires — note that S Korea and Egypt were not so treated) and finally, that the IAEA has stated that all of the issues about Iran’s safeguards violations had been resolved in accordance with the Modalities Agreement, the only outstanding issue being “alleged” studies into weaponization “supposedly” carried out by Iran in the past — for which the IAEA itself says it has no credible evidence. And finally, allow me to remind you that according the our US Secretary of State, Iran is not “allowed” to have the full nuclear fuel cycle, no matter what. (incidentally, the UNSC has no authority to demand that Iran sign the Additional Protocol nor to drop enrichment — both demands being ultra vires)

  25. hass (History)

    Josh — countries that don’t NOW enriche uranium either 1- dont’ have the resources, 2- dont’ have the same economic demands, 3- aren’t faced with the same strategic considerations, 4- may already be working on developing enrichment programs or have done so recently (Brazil, Argentina) and 5- are not being told that they don’t have the RIGHT to enrichment.
    So, the theory that “Iran could import fuel like some other countries but isn’t — therefore it must be making nukes” fall flat on its face too, along with the theory that “Iran’s enrichment pgoram has no civilian rationale” etc. The very fact that we’re resorting to these sorts of arguments illustrates the bankrupcty of the allegation that Iran is hellbent on making nukes.

  26. Josh (History)


    I’ve approved the last three comments with some reluctance.

    Herewith some voluntary but recommended guidelines for commenters:

    * Avoid ascribing bad faith to those you disagree with. Just imagine what they may think of your motives.

    * If you find yourself writing in ALL CAPS for emphasis, consider that you may be losing perspective.

    * Try to avoid writing any single comment or continuous sequence of comments longer than the original post.

    Following these simple rules will increase the chance that others will engage with the substance of your remarks, if any, and not be distracted by the overheated tone.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much to engage with here. It’s clear that you feel the IRI can do no wrong, other states have no legitimate concerns, and you won’t contemplate any other possibilities. This is precisely the outlook that has brought Iran to its current pass. Notice that they’ve lost all the arguments to date at the IAEA and the UN Security Council. Alternative readings of law, history, and international politics may comfort those who embrace them, but they convert few others along the way to sanctions, isolation, and God alone knows what else.

    We will now see if Iran’s leaders have enough wisdom to find another way. Here I agree with Arch, when he wrote, “Iran has tied the knot, and it’s Iran’s responsibility to untie it.”

    I’ll let it rest at that. You might well do the same.