The Obama administration has estimated for years that Iran was at most three months away from enriching enough nuclear fuel for an atomic bomb. But the administration only declassified this estimate at the beginning of the month, just in time for the White House to make the case for its Iran deal to Congress and the public.
Speaking to reporters and editors at our Washington bureau on Monday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz acknowledged that the U.S. has assessed for several years that Iran has been two to three months away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
When asked how long the administration has held this assessment, Moniz said: "Oh, quite some time." He added: "They are now, they are right now spinning, I mean enriching with 9,400 centrifuges out of their roughly 19,000. Plus all the ... [research and development] work. If you put that together it's very, very little time to go forward. That's the 2 to 3 months."
Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, confirmed to me Monday that the two-to-three-month estimate for fissile material was declassified on April 1.
Here is the puzzling thing: When Obama began his second term in 2013, he sang a different tune. He emphasized that Iran was more than a year away from a nuclear bomb, without mentioning that his intelligence community believed it was only two to three months away from making enough fuel for one, long considered the most challenging task in building a weapon.
Today Obama emphasizes that Iran is only two to three months away from acquiring enough fuel for a bomb, creating a sense of urgency for his Iran agreement.
Back in 2013, when Congress was weighing new sanctions on Iran and Obama was pushing for more diplomacy, his interest was in tamping down that sense of urgency. On the eve of a visit to Israel, Obama told Israel's Channel 2, "Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close."
On Oct. 5 of that year, Obama contrasted the U.S. view of an Iranian breakout with that of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time said Iran was only six months away from nuclear capability. Obama told the Associated Press, "Our assessment continues to be a year or more away. And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services."
Ben Caspit, an Israeli journalist and columnist for Al-Monitor, reported last year that Israel's breakout estimate was also two to three months away.
A year ago, after the nuclear talks started, Secretary of State John Kerry dropped the first hint about the still-classified Iran breakout estimate. He told a Senate panel, "I think it is fair to say, I think it is public knowledge today, that we are operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months."
David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me administration officials appeared to be intentionally unspecific in 2013, when the talking points used the 12-months-plus timeline.
"They weren't clear at all about what this one-year estimate meant, but people like me who said let's break it down to the constituent pieces in terms of time to build a bomb were rebuffed," he said.
Albright's group released its own breakout timetable that focused solely on the production of highly enriched uranium, not the weapon itself. It concluded Iran was potentially less than a month away.
When USA Today asked a spokeswoman for the National Security Council about Albright's estimate, she responded that the intelligence community maintained a number of estimates for how long Iran would take to produce enough material for a weapon.
"They have made it very hard for those of us saying, let's just focus on weapons-grade uranium, there is this shorter period of time and not a year," Albright told me. "If you just want a nuclear test device to blow up underground, I don't think you need a year."
This view is supported by a leaked document from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), first published by the Associated Press in 2009. Albright's group published excerpts from the IAEA assessment that concluded Iran "has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based upon (highly enriched uranium) as the fission fuel."
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is now an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told me that most of the technical estimates about an Iranian breakout were not nearly as precise as they are sometimes portrayed in the press. "The idea there is such a thing as a hard and fast formula for this is nonsense," he said. "All the physicists come up with different answers depending on what inputs they use."
In this way, Obama's new, more alarmist figure of two to three months provides a key selling point for the framework reached this month in Switzerland.
When Obama announced the preliminary agreement on April 2, he said one benefit was that if it were finalized, "even if it violated the deal, for the next decade at least, Iran would be a minimum of a year away from acquiring enough material for a bomb."
Hence the frustration of Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "We've been researching their claim that a deal would lengthen the breakout time for Iran from two to three months to a year," he told me of the administration. "We're just trying to confirm any of their numbers and we can't confirm or make sense of what they are referencing."
Nunes should hurry. The Iranian nuclear deal is scheduled to break out in less than three months.