Iran and Intelligence


“Barack Obama said it would take Iran a year or more to build a nuclear weapon,” began an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. The New York Times likewise reported the President’s assurance that “his administration believed it would take Iran ‘over a year or so’ to develop a nuclear weapon.” All due respect to the American government and intelligence agencies, this kind of a statement is misleading, calculating, and even naïve.

First, a few common-sense observations must be made. Undoubtedly, the American as well as global intelligence communities possess far greater and far more nuanced information regarding the developments in Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Such information is of course unavailable to the public. But a U.S. President would show far greater integrity to give qualified, accurate, and cautious small pieces of information to the public when possible rather than making sweeping and politically calculated assertions. Obama’s statements are public posturing; PR meant for consumption, and not much more.

Obama’s remarks were made ahead of his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, scheduled for next week. The issue of a nuclear Iran has been a key point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem for the entirety of Obama’s presidency, and a definition of the “red line” beyond which Iran must not be permitted to cross is far from agreed upon. A particular contention between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that Obama insists the “red line” is when Iran could imminently get an actual nuclear weapon, as opposed to Netanyahu’s assertion that Iran must not be permitted to develop the capability to develop one. The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. stance on this matter is insufficient from a security standpoint; if Iran is just “a few screwdriver turns away” from a nuclear weapon, it will effectively be the same as its having one.


It thus becomes clear that Obama’s statements this week on Israel’s Channel 2 news are calculated and designed to signal to the Israelis ahead of the President’s visit that he will not be discussing any military strike on Iran in the near future, as they are “over a year away” from Washington’s “red line.” This is not real diplomacy. This is using the media to deflect a conversation that should be had between the most powerful democracy on earth and the only democracy in the Middle East.

Finally, there could be even a more concerning component behind Obama’s assertions. Why is he repeatedly bringing this Iran issue so out into the open? Could it even be a plea to the Islamic Republic to stop its activities while the U.S. is still keeping its head in the sand? It is strange that the conversation over Iran has been so publicly conducted. Covert military operations targeting the nuclear program of a sinister Middle Eastern government is nothing new. In 1981 the Israeli Air Force destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in Operation Opera, and as recently as 2007 the Israelis engaged in Operation Orchard, striking a nuclear reactor in Syria confirmed by both U.S. and Israeli intelligence to be for military purposes. The success of these quietly executed strikes begs the question of why Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons can’t be handled in a similar way, if and when the time comes. Or at least perhaps just keep things a little quieter, whatever ends up happening.

Obama seems to want to deflect the Iran conversation, footballing it a year forward by making sweeping public assertions in Israel and elsewhere. Israel, or for that matter any nation or individual truly concerned about an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, should not be assuaged by Obama’s cavalier statement. Skepticism, caution, and realism are what intelligence demands.

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on events and politics in the Middle East. Contact her at