The Iranian slowdown

Thursday, January 13, 2011

CONFIRMATION that the international campaign against Iran's nuclear program has made headway recently came from a seemingly unlikely source: Israel's intelligence chief. Last week, Meir Dagan, outgoing head of the Mossad intelligence agency, said that Iran could not now acquire a nuclear weapon before 2015, because of unspecified technical problems. That was a big change from previous Israeli estimates: In 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Iran could have a bomb by this year. For years, Israeli measures of the Iranian nuclear timeline have been ahead of those by U.S. intelligence agencies, which predicted in 2007 than Iran could acquire nuclear capability between 2010 and 2015.

In Israel as in the United States, estimates of the Iranian threat may be swayed in part by debate over what to do about it; Mr. Dagan is reportedly an opponent of an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Yet there appear to be solid reasons to conclude that U.N. and other Western sanctions and covert operations have hindered the Iranian program. An ingenious computer virus called Stuxnet may have put hundreds or even thousands of centrifuges used in uranium enrichment out of action; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly acknowledged last November that a virus had infected equipment. Two Iranian nuclear scientists were killed and another wounded in the last year in assassination operations Iran has blamed on Israel.

At the same time, sanctions may have impeded Iran from acquiring the specialized materials, such as maraging steel and carbon fiber, that it needs to replace broken centrifuges or build the more advanced models it has claimed to develop. Without more advanced centrifuges, Iran would have trouble in any attempt to create a bomb out of the low-enriched uranium it has stockpiled. Experts believe it would take a year to manufacture bomb-grade material with the current machines, which means the effort - if conducted in known facilities - would probably be detected with plenty of time for Western nations to react.

The Obama administration deserves credit, at least, for orchestrating the tightening of sanctions; the authors of Stuxnet have not been identified. But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized this week, the changed timeline does not mean that the threat of Iran's program is over or that the urgency of confronting it is lessened. "We don't want anyone to be misled by anyone's intelligence analysis. This remains a serious concern," she said during a tour of Persian Gulf countries intended in part to win more support for sanctions enforcement. "We have time. But not a lot of time."

The challenge for the Obama administration, Israel and other allies will be to make use of that window to force a definitive end to the Iranian bomb program. The administration still hopes negotiations, set to resume Jan. 20, will achieve that end, but most likely it will require a fundamental change in Iran's hard-line regime. From that point of view, five years is certainly not much time.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company