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ElBaradei: Iran Possibly "Months Away" From Nukes

Over at Congressional Quarterly's SpyTalk, Jeff Stein remarks about IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei's recent remarks in an al-Arabiya Arabic broadcast that Iran may be only months away from a (uranium) nuclear weapon.

But my colleague Chuck Hoskinson, a CQ editor and former U.S. Army Arabic linquist, noticed something else in the interview that the English-language media evidently missed.

When he listened to the interview, broadcast only in Arabic, Hoskinson was startled to discover that ElBaradei had suddenly sliced years off his previous estimates of how long it would take Iran, if left alone, to build a bomb.

This should not come as a surprise - even from ElBaradei - as it is consistent to what he said just over two years ago in December 2005. He said then that it would take Iran about two years to get the Natanz enrichment plant fully operational, and then a matter of months to produce the fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb.

As we noted at the time, media reports misquoted ElBaradei then in saying he was stating in 2005 that Iran was "months away" from a nuclear weapon.

While the title of the UK Independent article is: UN chief urges West and Iran to cool brinkmanship over nuclear programme, IAEA Director General ElBaradei does little to allay fears and the sense of urgency on the Iranian nuclear program by offering up one of the shortest timelines (if not the shortest) to a nuclear-armed Iran yet.
Although IAEA officials have said it would take at least two years for Natanz to become fully operational, Mr ElBaradei believes that once the facility is up and running, the Iranians could be “a few months” away from a nuclear weapon.

He said then that it was two years (for Natanz to be online) and then a period of months before Iran could produce a bomb. The "two years" have now gone by, and his timeline now reflects a matter of months - which is consistent. Unsettling, but consistent.

In the PrincipalAnalysis written later in December 2005 (PrincipalAnalysis: The IAEA Tree That Fell and No One Heard), at the time ElBaradei made his remarks, he was stating the shortest nuclear timeline made by anyone at the time - including US NIE's, Israeli estimates as well as European projections.

This is at great odds with other widely publicized and debated timelines, most notably the National Intelligence Estimate that stated that Iran was likely 10 or more years out from developing a nuclear weapon, and others proffering that Iran is at least five years 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 carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
That ElBaradei’s assessment, potentially one-fifth that of the NIE, seems to have fallen on deaf ears should be more than a little troubling. Many should be asking precisely where this game-changing assessment was when the five to ten-year estimates were being publicly debated. An estimate of a potential two-year window significantly changes the dynamic and sense of urgency regarding the Iranian Nuclear Crisis.

Final thought for now until time permits more contextualized analysis: All of the estimates are for a uranium based nuclear weapon. Keep clearly in mind that Iran is pursuing a plutonium based weapon beyond the purview of the IAEA and any other concerned party. The latest intelligence report that the Syrian nuclear facility destroyed by Israel last September was a joint Iran-Syria-North Korea plutonium weapons endeavor should not come as a shock. Recall that Iran had senior officers from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in North Korea to observe the North Korean underground test detonation of a small plutonium-based nuclear weapon. It was a nuclear weapons open house demonstration, with North Korea's principal client on hand.

More soon. For now, just some quick context.

1 Comment

From what I read at the time the NIE came out, it seemed as if the consensus was that the Iranian capability was a political statement by three disgruntled bureaucrats. Alternately, that they were pushing the views of dissident State Department and intelligence officials.

I always thought the motives were far deeper. I would hope that a counter-intelligence investigation was instigated into the background behind the NIE assessment of Iranian capability.