Iran's Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb

Dafna Linzer
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, August 2, 2005; 12:00 PM

A recent U.S. intelligence report, the National Intelligence Estimate, puts Iran about ten years away from having a key component needed for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. This estimate doubles the previous timetable of approximately five years, and broadens options for assessing Iran's motives and pursuing diplomatic avenues.

Read Dafna Linzer's article: Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb.

Washington Post staff writer Dafna Linzer was online Tuesday, August 2, at Noon ET to discuss Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The transcript follows.


Dafna Linzer: Hi everyone, thanks for some great questions. I'm looking forward to responding.


Fairfax, Va.: Why is The Post focusing on Iran possibly going nuclear when over the course of the Bush presidency North Korean has actually been building up its nuclear stockpile? Why don't you write about how Bush has allowed that to happen and at the same time avoided criticism in the press for failing to keep us safer in doing so? Just try to imagine if the North Koreans had done the same while Clinton was president, you wouldn't have stopped printing stories criticizing his dereliction of duty, don't you think?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, The Post is actually able to focus on Iran and North Korea at the same. We've been covering the talks in Beijing, writing about the intelligence on North Korea from Washington and last October, we did a big series on Bush's national security record that focused on the inability to roll back the North Korean program and Iranian program. We also wrote about the success with Libya and the Pakistani network that was busted.


Herndon, Va.: "Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb"

The last time a statement was made like that in regards to nuclear ambitions was in 1946 with the publication of the Smyth Report. When asked whether it was wise to publish such detailed documents regarding nuclear weapons physics, someone said (I want to say it was Leslie Groves - who led the Manhattan Project) proclaimed that the USSR was 20 years away from getting the Bomb. How foolish they must have felt when in August 1949 the Soviets detonated their own bomb - some 16 or so years off that prediction. I would hope that the folks who made that assessment would take a lesson from history.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, this is an important point to keep in mind. Estimates are just that - estimates. And they are based on the evidence known at the time. Ten years ago, when Iran's program was thought to be smaller than it is today, US intelligence thought the country was closer to completing a bomb.


Herndon, Va.: So a National Intelligence Estimate says that Iran is 10 years away from having nuclear weapons. Are these the same intelligence experts that said Iraq had WMDs and an active nuclear programs?; And is this being filtered through the Pentagon who said Jessica Lynch was Rambo and who wanted to put Pat Tillman up for a Silver Star even after they knew he'd been killed by friendly fire?; Excuse my skepticism, but is this supposed to make me feel better or should I also consider the source?;

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I think a lot of people can relate to the frustration your expressing about the quality of the intelligence and the ability of the community to put together accurate assessments. My impression is that the Iran estimate is a very different product than the declassified, and heavily flawed document we saw on Iraq. This one was described to me as well documented, heavily hedged and creative in that includes alternative theories to explain things that seem very suspicious but might not be.


Anonymous: If the U.S. needs to go to the U.N. to ask for action against Iran, how credible would John Bolton be in presenting the issues against Iran?

Dafna Linzer: I guess we'll find out if or when that happens. A recess appointment makes clear that Bolton didn't get Congressional approval but it also makes clear that he has the support of the president. It all depends on how he uses it.


Chicago, Ill.: Your use of anonymous sources really bothers me. There is not a single named U.S. government official quoted responding to this article. How do we know you aren't been spun by one side? You and other Post reporters have written articles before, based on unnamed sources, which have been denied by the U.S. government officials after they were printed. So why should we believe this report?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I know exactly how you feel. It bothers me too. I wish sources could go on the record but when it comes to intelligence matters, they really can't. So we're left with a choice, grant anonymity or loose out on the chance to know what the Iran assessments really are. I haven't seen any denials of today's story.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Herndon, Va., has it wrong. It wasn't the Smyth report that gave the bomb to the Soviet Union, it was the spying of Klaus Fuchs and others. They delivered blueprints. Four years from blueprints is a long time, considering that the Manhattan Project delivered three bombs of two different designs in a little more than two years.

Dafna Linzer: Very interesting.


Israel: Hi, you say:

"The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures."

when were the British and Israeli figures revised (to mid-next-decade)? have those revisions been published in Great Britain or in Israel, or in any significant publication?

Dafna Linzer: The only place I've seen mention of the Israeli estimates was in the Jerusalem Post.


Columbia, S.C.: Given the record of our intelligence agencies over the past 20 years, why would anyone rely on these findings?

Dafna Linzer: Another good question that highlights the skepticism resulting from the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The estimates are meant as a guide for the president on national security matters. But he's free to ignore them, or ask for clarifications or anything else.


Orlando, Fla.: In Pollack's book, "The Persian Puzzle", he mentions the idea of a 'Grand Bargain' that would settle all outstanding issues between the U.S. and Iran (including nuclear weapons). Do you think some version of this Grand Bargain is feasible and/or likely in the near future? Or, is it necessary to wait for the next generation of leaders (ones born after the hostage crisis) before these two nations can normalize relations?

Dafna Linzer: This is a good question referring to a book published earlier this year by Ken Pollock, who was a CIA analyst at the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

Some administration officials have said they are not interested in a Grand Bargain because they don't want to reward Iran for having constructed a nuclear program in secret. But the idea isn't going away and has many advocates who believe it's possible sometime in the future.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Linzer.

You cite Admiral Jacoby as saying Iran was "within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon."

But, Jacoby actually testified, that "Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade."

"... early in the next decade" is a lot closer to "... early to mid-next decade" is not really "roughly doubling the estimate" as you suggest.

I do wish reporters would critically examine motives for leaks.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, Jacoby's assessment of early in the next decade put the timeframe around 2010. By extending it to now include mid-decade, the timeframe is now around 2015. That's the difference and it is believed to be an important one inside the intelligence community and reflective of the desires of analysts to review and revise their work as they learn more about the program.


New York, N.Y.: You write: "The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal."

Huh? Two paragraphs later, you write that the report SUPPORTS administration statements that Iran is moving toward a nuclear arsenal: "a senior intelligence official familiar with the findings said that 'it is the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons.'"

So, the report SUPPORTS that Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapons, right? Exactly what the administration said, right?

Where's the "contrast"?

Dafna Linzer: The contrast is in the immediacy of the threat. The story includes comments from Bolton and Vice President Cheney suggesting Iran was closer than it is now believed to be. The senior intelligence official is saying that "left to it's own devices" Iran is determined to do this. But Iran isn't being left to its own devices. There are UN inspectors there, negotiations with the Europeans and focused international attention on the program.


Washington, D.C.: Are these the same intelligence communities that had no clue about India and Pakistan's plans for nuclear tests in 1998? Excuse me if I take their "report" with a giant shaker of salt.

Dafna Linzer: It's the same community but I doubt it's the same exact analysts. I do know that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction is very difficult. As the presidential commission on WMD found earlier this year, US intelligence knows "disturbingly little" on this score.


Wheaton, Md.: Had it not been for the heroic actions of our Israeli allies, Iraq would today be a nuclear power. Should we expect the same from Israel if Iran's nuclear threat becomes more likely?

Dafna Linzer: On the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, conventional wisdom in Washington was that Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear plant rolled back a weapons program by many years and made the world safer. But since the invasion and the US investigation into Iraq's real programs, that belief has changed. Some inside the intelligence community now believe that Iraq wasn't trying to build nuclear weapons at that time but that they decided to do so only after Israel's attack.


Arlington, Va.: I've been told that the leaking of the name of a CIA desk jockey is treasonous. Now we have a leak of our most sensitive information regarding Iran. Do you expect an investigation of this leak like there is an investigation of the Plame leak? Are you prepared to go to jail to protect your sources?

Dafna Linzer: I feel very confident that today's story didn't include the most sensitive information on Iran. It didn't identify sources and methods, intelligence community personnel or anything of that nature.


Washington, D.C.: You mention above that some scenarios have been presented that explain possibly suspect activities innocently. Can you elaborate?

Dafna Linzer: Check out today's story for a good example about alternative theories regarding the secrecy behind Iran's nuclear program.


Annandale, Va.: Why is it ok that Israel has nukes but not Iran?

Dafna Linzer: That argument could just as easily be a justification for every country to go nuclear.


Long Beach, Calif.: Anyone with Arabs in their family can tell you that Arab pride is a force to contend with. After all they had a advanced society a few hundred years ago and go back thousands - the problem is that they won't stop until they have the bomb. Why? They want global "respectability"... Plus there area few hundred psycho-conservative Mullahs in Iran who want to muscle the world as leaders of a Pan Arab reality.

They won't stop and "duck and cover" doesn't watch out.

Dafna Linzer: I think anyone with Iranians in their family would tell you they aren't Arab.


Florida: So when the administration starts harping on again about the imminent threat posed by Iran (shades of Iraq), will The Post cite this document as a counter to their claims or will they simply parrot the administration's talking points once again?

Yes, I have very little faith left in The Washington Post's ability to report fact over fiction.

Dafna Linzer: I think the point here is that we now know a little about what the assessments are and that helps when it comes to accountability.


Laurel, Md.: Is the state of science in Iran hampered in any way by religious ideology, the way Soviet agriculture was for many years?

Dafna Linzer: That's interesting but I don't get that impression. Iran's is thought to have a pretty advanced missile capability and has many universities with science and tech programs like anywhere else. If there's someone out there with better information than me on this, hopefully they'll post it on the chat.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Khidhir Hamza's autobiographical book, "Saddam's Bombmaker", makes the valid point that there are many factors that can prevent progression of know-how to an actual bomb, and did in the case of Iraq:

the academic interests of the scientists, lack of indecisiveness about which pathway to take for uranium enrichment, the relative ease of making "any bomb" versus the difficulty of making one that can actually be delivered by a rocket or a jet aircraft smaller than the size of a B-52. etc.

These factors don't seem to be taken into account in news articles, which commonly just assume that given the intent and a nuclear reactor, that a war-capable bomb will inevitably result.

Your comments?

Dafna Linzer: The entire thesis of Hamza's book is that Iraq was secretly building nuclear weapons in the 1990's and that, as we all know, was totally wrong.


Virginia: Where did the Iranians scientists came from? After the revolution in 1979, all the universities were closed.

Dafna Linzer: From Iran. Some studied abroad, many in US universities before the revolution and at home.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Dafna, It seems to me that the reason that Iran wants to join the "nuke club" is that it is surrounded by members, some of whom are perhaps adversaries. Doesn't it make sense for us to spend efforts on eliminating existing nuclear weapons in the Middle East first?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I don't know about the "first" part of your question. I think you have to tackle it as part of the problem and it's been very hard to do. UN inspectors in Vienna tried to put together a conference this year on a nuclear-weapons free Middle East and the parties could even agree on where the thing should be held, let alone what the agenda should be.


Munich, Germany: Dr. Abdul Khan provided Iran with information and technology, and hence I'm surprised that Iran needs 10 more years to make the bomb.

How does Iran compare with other countries that were in contact with Khan?

Dafna Linzer: Here's a good one to end with. Khan, often refer to as the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, did business with Iran and Libya and North Korea. As far as we know, Libya got the most help since it bought a warhead design and equipment for an entire centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium. But there is so little that we know about North Korea's program that it's hard to tell. And there are many unanswered questions still about Iran.

So I'm going to end it there. Thanks very much for reading and participating.


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