Cracked Crystal Ball

A portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is placed with weapons during a military parade just outside Tehran on Sept. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Only two years ago the public was reliably informed that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the only threat it represented existed in the fevered brain of the vast right wing conspiracy. Today we are told by equally reliable sources the administration is negotiating to delay the country’s ability to build a nuclear weapon for about a year, “buying more time for President Obama to search for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.” Not a bad comeback for a program that stopped a long time ago.  David Sanger of the NYT describes the administration’s latest diplomatic initiative with Iran.


VIENNA — Iranian negotiators have agreed to a draft deal that would delay the country’s ability to build a nuclear weapon for about a year, buying more time for President Obama to search for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff. …

If Tehran’s divided leadership agrees to the accord, which Iran’s negotiators indicated was not assured, it will remove enough nuclear fuel from Iran to delay any work on a nuclear weapon until the country can replenish its stockpile of fuel, estimated to require about one year. As such, it would buy more time for Mr. Obama to try to negotiate a more comprehensive and more difficult agreement to end Iran’s production of new nuclear material.

In 2007 ABC News reported:

In a stunning reversal of Bush administration conventional wisdom, a new assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies concludes Iran shelved its nuclear weapons program over four years ago.

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” reads a declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate key findings. We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon is late 2009.”

Today the NYT says “Even if approved, the deal will represent only one small step toward resolving what has become one of the most complex foreign policy challenges facing Mr. Obama and the Middle East. Because Iran continues to produce nuclear fuel at a rapid clip, this accord would be only a temporary fix, though a symbolically important one.” The year 2007 was a vintage one for predictions. An NPR news story reported that Iraq was only going to get worse.


The situation in Iraq is very bad and getting worse. That’s the judgment of a new National Intelligence Estimate that represents the views of all 16 U.S. spy agencies. The report also says that Iraqi leaders will be “hard pressed” to stabilize the country by the middle of 2008. …

Also prompting questions is the NIE’s judgment on whether Iraq is in a state of “civil war”— a term the Bush administration has avoided using. What the report judges, in effect, is that the situation in Iraq is worse than a civil war. While the term “civil war” accurately describes some elements of the conflict in Iraq, the report says, it doesn’t “adequately capture the complexity.”

We now know how that turned out. This only goes to show that the principal difficulty in predicting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. That inherent uncertainty in divining the future is the reason behind the adage “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”, or in other words “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”. Since intelligence assessments are very poor at measuring intent and only somewhat better at measuring capability, framing the question is vitally important. In 2004 the Bush administration invaded Iraq partly on the argument that Saddam Hussein could not be allowed to develop WMDs. In fact, no stockpiles were found. Colin Powell argued that although none were found Saddam Hussein had the “intent and the capability” to make them. Pre-emption got a bad name. Fortunately the disrepute was limited to GWB and not to pre-empting Swine Flu or preventing Global Warming.


The consequence of this mistake was the political price paid by the Bush administration. The price paid by the Iraqi people depends on whether or not one feels they would have suffered less under a continuation of the Saddam regime than the eventual state they find themselves in. But it’s also interesting to consider what price might have been borne if Saddam had turned out to have had WMDs — and the option of invading him had been rejected. On which side should one have erred? The point is moot because the facts are now known. But they are only completely known in retrospect and only rarely in prospect.

It’s instructive to recall that the Manhattan project — and the actual genesis of nuclear weapons in the world — was triggered by the mistaken belief that Hitler had a highly developed atomic bomb program. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard raised the specter of a Nazi superweapon to Franklin Roosevelt.

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable — through the work of [Frédéric] Joliot[-Curie] in France as well as [Enrico] Fermi and Szilard in America — that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.

The letter has often been seen as the origin of the Manhattan Project, the successful wartime nuclear weapons project which produced the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The path from the letter to the bombings though is considerably longer than just this: the Advisory Committee on Uranium did not vigorously pursue the development of a weapon, and at least two other organizations superseded it (the National Defense Research Committee and the Office of Scientific Research and Development) before the work of fission research was finally superseded by the Manhattan Engineering District in 1942 and became a full-scale bomb development program. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb project, however, and, according to Linus Pauling, later regretted having signed the letter.


After the Allies had captured Germany survey teams found that the Nazis were far short of being able to build an atomic bomb.  In other words the US was exactly in the same position in 1945 as GWB had been with Saddam in 2004. Had Roosevelt survived would he have been pressed to explain why he ‘lied’ and ‘misled’ the American people and wound up building a ‘racist weapon’ designed purely to kill little yellow men? No. His relations with the press were too good for that. But should he have been? Some would argue that given the ferocious nature of Nazism, Roosevelt had no alternative but to assume the worst.

Roosevelt after all had no way of knowing for a fact that Hitler wasn’t building a bomb. He had to go on what he knew and maybe FDR couldn’t afford to take the chance. Intelligence gives answers about the future that are frequently wrong. That’s the nature of the beast. But a correct appreciation of the prospects often depends on which questions the decision maker doesn’t mind being wrong about. President Obama is now betting that he can reach a deal with Iranians. The idea of negotiating with Teheran to delay their threat until a bigger grand bargain can be reached sounds an awful lot like a man who is trying to bribe a legbreaker into giving him more time to come up with the vig. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Who knows but that the President might get away with it?  But it’s interesting to consider whether he’s thought out the consequences of being wrong about it.


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