Nuclear weapons are hard to build for managerial reasons, not technical ones. This is why so few authoritarian regimes have succeeded: they don’t have the right culture or institutions. When it comes to Iran’s program, then, the United States and its allies should get out of the way and let Iran’s worst enemies -- its own leaders -- gum up the process on their own.
Iran is not the only state with a dysfunctional nuclear weapons program. As I argued in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article, since the 1970s, most states seeking entry into the nuclear weapons club have run their weapons programs poorly, leading to a marked slowdown in global proliferation. The cause of this mismanagement is the poor quality of the would-be proliferator's state institutions. Libya and North Korea are two classic examples. Libya essentially made no progress, even after 30 years of trying. North Korea has gotten somewhere -- but only after 50 years, and with many high-profile embarrassments along the way. Iran, whose nuclear weapons drive began in the mid-1980s, seems to be following a similar trajectory. Considering Iran in the broader context of the proliferation slowdown, it becomes clear that the technical problems it has encountered are more than unpredictable accidents -- they are structurally determined.
Since U.S. and Israeli intelligence services have failed to appreciate the weakness of Iran's nuclear weapons program, they have not adjusted their analytical models accordingly. Thus, there is reason to be skeptical about Israel's updated estimate of an Iranian bomb in the next two or three years. The new date is probably just the product of another ad hoc readjustment, but what is needed is a fundamental rethinking.
As the little shepherd boy learned, crying wolf too early and too often destroys one's credibility and leaves one vulnerable and alone. In order to rebuild public trust in their analysis, Jerusalem and Washington need to explain the assumptions on which their scary estimates are based, provide alternative estimates that are also consistent with the data they have gathered, and give a clear indication of the chance that their estimates are wrong and will have to be revised again. The Iranian nuclear effort is highly provocative. The potential for war is real. That is why Israel and the United States need to avoid peddling unrealistic, worse-than-worst-case scenarios.
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