Give the intelligence community credit for consistency. When it comes to Iran, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last summer, in a leaked National Intelligence Estimate that was widely seen as a mandate for European-led diplomacy with Iran's ayatollahs, the U.S. CIA judged that the Islamic Republic was a full decade away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. Fast forward 10 months, and little has changed. "We don't have a clear-cut knowledge, but the estimate we have made is sometime between the beginning of the next decade and the middle of the next decade [Iran] might be in a position to have a nuclear weapon," John Negroponte, the Bush administration's intelligence czar, recently told the BBC.
Mr. Negroponte's assessment is surprising, given the major progress Iran has made on its nuclear program over the past year. It also has the potential to be downright dangerous; if the United States miscalculates the pace of Iran's nuclear progress, the results could be catastrophic -- ranging from a nuclear arms race in the Middle East to a unilateral Israeli military strike on the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, when it comes to the issue of the Iranian bomb, context is everything. Technically, the intelligence community's five-to-10 year assessment may be correct. But this unit of measure is deeply flawed on at least two fronts.
The first is the rate of Iran's acquisition of new capabilities. The intelligence community's estimates about when Iran will "go nuclear" are directly pegged to the sophistication of the country's internal nuclear processes. But nuclear weapons are not necessarily made at home. For years, Iran has been engaged in an aggressive procurement effort on the thriving nuclear black market that has sprung up on the territory of the former Soviet Union. And, according to a comprehensive threat assessment developed by the Belgian, British, French and German intelligence agencies last year, Iran is still actively scouring Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space for both WMD materials and expertise. If it has been even marginally successful in acquiring either, Tehran already has dramatically shortened the time it needs to develop a nuclear bomb.
The second problem relates to international involvement. Over the past two decades, a number of foreign nations -- chief among them, Russia, China and North Korea -- have provided significant aid to the Iranian atomic effort, and this type of cooperation is hardly a thing of the past. Just this past December, the Bush administration leveled sanctions on nine separate Chinese, Indian and Austrian entities for transferring prohibited technology to Tehran. Experts also believe the Islamic Republic could still be cooperating with remnants of the WMD cartel once run by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan or with substitute proliferation networks that have sprung up to take its place. With this type of outside help, Tehran could quickly overcome the remaining technological hurdles in its quest for the bomb.
Given these variables, gaming precisely when Iran will cross the nuclear threshold is bound to be an inexact science, and it is far from certain that American intelligence is up to the task. After all, the U.S. intelligence community has failed to accurately forecast every single major international WMD incident of the past decade: North Korea's 1998 launch of its Taepo-Dong intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan, the twin nuclearizations of India and Pakistan the same year and North Korea's subsequent nuclear breakout in October 2002. There is no reason to think that when it comes to the Iranian bomb American intelligence will do any better.
Indeed, if recent history is any indication, the gaps in our knowledge about Iran's atomic effort are likely to prove glaring. CIA estimates notwithstanding, prudence dictates that Washington plan its strategy toward Tehran accordingly.