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Time Bomb
The poor track record of atomic predictions.


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Is Iran closer to testing a nuclear weapon than we think? Last week officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that samples of machinery taken from a former Iranian research center showed traces of weapons-grade uranium. On Sunday, Tehran rejected out of hand a package of incentives offered by the EU in exchange for Iran halting its enrichment of uranium. But intelligence agencies have assured us that Iran is years from testing a nuclear weapon. The latest publicly known estimate is that they are about a decade off. So nothing to worry about yet, right?

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Consider the track record of these estimates. When have they ever been correct? Usually when a country tests a nuclear weapon, the event shocks the world. This was true of India in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998. As well with China–an August 1964 National Intelligence Estimate of the chances of a Chinese nuclear detonation noted that a test site was being prepared at Lop Nor, and would be ready in two months. However, the CIA stated that the Chinese would not have the necessary fissionable material to finish a bomb, so they doubted anything would happen for the rest of the year. Sure enough, two months later, on October 16, 1964, the Chinese successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Something to keep in mind when the “lack of fissionable material” argument comes up with respect to Iran.

The most noteworthy failed atomic forecast was the Soviet case. The CIA’s Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE) was given the task of making this prediction. ORE’s earliest analysis, in 1946, saw the Soviet bomb coming sometime in the 1950-1953 timeframe. Over a series of subsequent reports, the ORE settled on mid-1953 as “the most probable date” for a Soviet nuclear test. This estimate was published August 24, 1949; five days later, the Soviets tested their first a-bomb.

One reported diplomatic response to the Soviet atomic test was the belief that since Moscow had the bomb the Communists would not feel as threatened and would be more willing to seek agreements to limit nuclear power. I am sure we will hear that kind of nonsense about Iran too, if we have not already–that possessing nuclear weapons will give them the sense of security they need to act as arbiter of peace and stability in the Middle East. However, the Soviet atomic test was the start of the most dangerous and expensive arms race in history.

Analysts who make these estimates look at a variety of factors, focusing chiefly on the known physical capacity to produce such weapons. Quantifiable variables such as these adapt well to creating timelines. Take the amount of fissile material needed to have a weapon, divide by the estimated rate of production (based on the number of reactors, for example), and you have a timeline. However, Iran’s supposed material constrains may not be as important as the intent of the regime to acquire the weapons. Highly motivated countries that devote their national energies to projects of this type tend to find ways to get them done.

Case in point: The United States went from no nuclear weapons–that is, no nuclear weapons in all of human history–to the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in about four years. It is hard to believe that today, with the widespread knowledge of nuclear theory; 60 years of experience with nuclear weapons in various countries around the world; the availability of former Soviet scientists and technology; the assistance of rogue states like North Korea; underground networks of the type put together by A. Q. Khan to build Pakistan’s nuclear weapon; the incredible surplus wealth being pumped into Iran daily due to inflated oil prices; and a highly motivated regime that seeks to develop nuclear capability as soon as possible–it is hard to believe that it would take Iran a decade to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Maybe in this case my analytical method can be summed up as common sense, but given the experts’ record of accomplishment we should admit there are things we cannot know, and plan for the worst case. It is risky business basing critical policy decisions on timelines that are certain to be wrong.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.



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