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Will Ahmadinejad See His Shadow? The Groundhog Day Debate over War with Iran

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As I dived deep into academic research on Iran’s nuclear program, I swear I entered a militarized version of Groundhog Day. If you aren’t familiar with the movie (and how can you not be?), a sarcastic weatherman, played perfectly by the Bill Murray, finds himself reliving the same day over and over. No matter what he does, he wakes up on Groundhog Day, February 2nd.

In my Iran War version of Groundhog Day, Iran remains perpetually stuck one to five years away from having a nuclear weapon. By my calculations, in 1992, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and this year, 2012, either a pundit or politician warned the world about an imminent nuclear armed Iran. In the worst example, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran would have a nuclear weapon in one year...twenty years ago.

With this prediction of imminent Iranian nuclearity comes the perpetual Israeli threat to strike Iranian nuclear facilities...and pundits guarantee an attack will occur almost every year.

(I mentioned in an earlier post that war with Iran comes up almost every calendar year we hold an Olympics. Researching this post, I double down on that idea. Something about athletic competition must get the juices flowing in Israel.)

Here’s a quick timeline for how doomsaying on Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel or the U.S. will attack Iran:


Time Away: 3-5 Years.
Source: Then Parliamentarian, now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Did Israel threaten war?: Yes.
Quote: Then Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from producing a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US." (Also that year, then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, told French TV that, “Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999.”)


Time Away: “Could be less than five years”
Source: “Several senior American and Israeli officials” in the Old Grey Lady
Did Israel threaten war? Yep.
Quotes: “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought, and could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb, several senior American and Israeli officials say.”

Time Away: No estimates, but everyone repeats the talking point, “Iran is aggressively pursuing WMD.
Source: President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham
Did Israel threaten war? Not exactly, but President Bush added Iran to the “axis of evil”.


Time Away: Three years...if not sooner.
Source: Sam Gardiner Colonel (Ret.) in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? The war game in the article all but assumed this scenario.
Quote: The Atlantic runs a war game on war with Iran, something reporter James Fallows describes as, “barely mentioned in America's presidential campaign”. Using the most accurate reports at the time, Fallows reported that, “The [intelligence] community believes that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in three years.”


Time Away: 5-10 years.
Source: The Bipartisan Policy Center using a National Intelligence Estimate
Did Israel threaten war? Not in this report.
Quotes:  “Portions of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate leaked in August 2005 reported that the Iranian regime was between five to ten years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb”.

(Actually, The Bipartisan Policy Center is pretty funny on this issue. Look at these titles ranging from 2008 to 2012: Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development then Meeting the Challenge: Time Is Running Out and then Meeting the Challenge: When Time Runs Out and then Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock. Oh my, time has been running out since 2009! Eep!)


Time Away: No estimates.
Source: Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker
Did Israel threaten war? Yes, imminently.
Quote: Seymour Hersh reports that a strike is imminent. He also speculates that the U.S. military may use nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
(For the next three years, Seymour Hersh would write an article each year characterizing Israeli attack as “unavoidable” or describing Iran as “five years away” from a nuclear weapon.)


Time Away: Soon, but no estimates.
Source: Former U.S. Ambassador to U.N. John Bolton
Did Israel threaten war? Bolton predicted war before 2009.
Quote: “Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicts that Israel will attack Iran before January 2009.”

Time Away: 1-3 years.
Source: Secretary Robert Gates, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? Goldberg predicts war in spring of 2011.
Quotes: Secretary Robert Gates, “Most people believe that the Iranians could not really have any nuclear weapons for at least another year or two. I would say the intelligence estimates range from one to three years.”

Jeffrey Goldberg said, “Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability”.

Time Away: 1-5 years.
Source: See our post from Friday and Jeffrey Goldberg.
Did Israel threaten war? Absolutely.

I am not the first person to point out this unique trend. The Christian Science Monitor has a great roundup, so does Jeff Emanuel on Redstate, and this blog post’s 26,000 words, no kidding, probably round up every mention of Iran ever. Finally, this Wikipedia article shows the limits to crowdsourcing research: tons of research, poor organization and even worse writing.

two comments

Great Research, I don´t remember Iran even being a major foreign policy issue back when I was 9 or 12.

What’s crazy about a lot of this stuff is how truly cyclical it really is.