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Iran Is Still Botching the Bomb
It is Time for Israel and the United States To Stop Overreacting
JACQUES E. C. HYMANS is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author, most recently, of Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation. This postscript is an update to his Foreign Affairs article “Botching the Bomb,” which appeared in the May/June 2012 issue.See more by this author
At the end of January, Israeli intelligence officials quietly indicated that they have downgraded their assessments of Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb. This is surprising because less than six months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned from the tribune of the United Nations that the Iranian nuclear D-Day might come as early as 2013. Now, Israel believes that Iran will not have its first nuclear device before 2015 or 2016.
The news comes as a great relief. But it also raises questions. This was a serious intelligence failure, one that has led some of Israel's own officials to wonder aloud, "Did we cry wolf too early?"
Indeed, Israel has consistently overestimated Iran's nuclear program for decades. In 1992, then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that Iran was on pace to have the bomb by 1999. Israel's many subsequent estimates have become increasingly frenzied but have been consistently wrong. U.S. intelligence agencies have been only slightly less alarmist, and they, too, have had to extend their timelines repeatedly.
Overestimating Iran's nuclear potential might not seem like a big problem. However, similar, unfounded fears were the basis for President George W. Bush's preemptive attack against Iraq and its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Israel and the United States need to make sure that this kind of human and foreign policy disaster does not happen again.