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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly, September 2012. (Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters)
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.
What explains Israel's most recent intelligence failure? Israeli officials have suggested that Iran decided to downshift its nuclear program in response to international sanctions and Israel's hawkish posture. But that theory falls apart when judged against Tehran's own recent aggressiveness. In the past few months, Iran has blocked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from gaining access to suspect facilities, stalled on diplomatic meetings, and announced a "successful" space shot and the intention to build higher-quality centrifuges. These are not the actions of a state that is purposely slowing down its nuclear program. Even more to the point, if Tehran were really intent on curbing its nuclear work, an explicit announcement of the new policy could be highly beneficial for the country: many states would praise it, sanctions might be lifted, and an Israeli or U.S. military attack would become much less likely. But Iran has not advertised the downshift, and its only modest concession of late has been to convert some of its 20 percent enriched uranium to reactor fuel. It is doubtful that the Iranians would decide to slow down their nuclear program without asking for anything in return.
A second hypothesis is that Israeli intelligence estimates have been manipulated for political purposes. This possibility is hard to verify, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran is Netanyahu's signature foreign policy stance, and he had an acute interest in keeping the anti-Iran pot boiling in the run-up to last month's parliamentary elections, which he nearly lost. Now, with the elections over, perhaps Israeli intelligence officials feel freer to convey a more honest assessment of Iran's status. This theory of pre-election spin is not very satisfying, however, because it fails to explain why Israeli governments of all political orientations have been making exaggerated claims about Iran for 20 years -- to say nothing of the United States' own overly dire predictions.
The most plausible reason for the consistent pattern of overstatement is that Israeli and U.S. models of Iranian proliferation are flawed. Sure enough, Israeli officials have acknowledged that they did not anticipate the high number of technical problems Iranian scientists have run into recently. Some of those mishaps may have been the product of Israeli or U.S. efforts at sabotage. For instance, the 2010 Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran's nuclear facilities reportedly went well. But the long-term impact of such operations is usually small -- or nonexistent: the IAEA and other reputable sources have dismissed the highly publicized claims of a major recent explosion at Iran's Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, for instance.
Rather than being hampered by James Bond exploits, Iran's nuclear program has probably suffered much more from Keystone Kops-like blunders: mistaken technical choices and poor implementation by the Iranian nuclear establishment. There is ample reason to believe that such slipups have been the main cause of Iran's extremely slow pace of nuclear progress all along. The country is rife with other botched projects, especially in the chaotic public sector. It is unlikely that the Iranian nuclear program is immune to these problems. This is not a knock against the quality of Iranian scientists and engineers, but rather against the organizational structures in which they are trapped. In such an environment, where top-down mismanagement and political agendas are abundant, even easy technical steps often lead to dead ends and pitfalls.
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.