Citing unnamed "experts" on Iran nuke threat, Kondracke, Liasson agreed "time is running out"

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

On Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Mort Kondracke claimed that "experts that I talked to think" that Iran will produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb by summer 2007. Kondracke did not inform viewers which "experts" he was referring to.

During the "All-Star Panel" segment on the March 30 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke claimed that "experts that I talked to think" that Iran will produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb by summer 2007. Kondracke did not inform viewers which "experts" he was referring to. In recent weeks, however, U.S. government officials and other experts have repeatedly estimated that it would take longer than Kondracke claimed for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

During the panel discussion, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes referred to a March 30 statement by Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): "We are not facing an imminent threat. We need to lower the pitch."

In response, Kondracke claimed that "the experts that I talked to think that on the basis of what the Iranians have announced that they are going to do, as to enrichment ... they will be able to have enough fissile material of their own making for a bomb sometime next summer, summer 2007." Guest-host Chris Wallace then asked, "So, a little over a year?" Kondracke responded, "Yeah." NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson later added: "[A]s Mort said, time is running out. Pretty soon, Iran is going to have the bomb."

On March 5, The New York Times reported that "American intelligence agencies say it will take 5 to 10 years for Iran to manufacture the fuel for its first atomic bomb." In a March 1 op-ed in The Hill, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that "Iran, if it continues on its current path, will likely have the capability to produce nuclear weapons within the next decade."

In recent days, U.S. government officials have been quoted anonymously asserting that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon sooner than previously thought. But even according to these claims, Iran is further away from a nuclear weapon than the "summer 2007" estimate Kondracke cited.

In a March 23 article, Knight Ridder reported that based on a recent IAEA briefing on Iran's nuclear progress, "U.S. officials and a foreign diplomat" expressed concern that Iranian progress on a network of 164 centrifuges indicated that Iran would be "two to three years away" from a nuclear weapon if Iran overcame numerous "technical hurdles":

Should Iran quickly overcome the numerous technical obstacles to operating the test network, known as a cascade, it could accelerate the installation of an industrial-scale plant and begin producing highly enriched uranium much sooner than currently forecast, the U.S. officials and the diplomat said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue.

Based on the IAEA data, U.S. experts have concluded that "Iran could be as little as two to three years away from having nuclear weapons, with all the necessary caveats and assumptions and extrapolations about them overcoming technical hurdles," said one U.S. official. "Admittedly, those are significant assumptions."

Knight Ridder noted that in contrast to these anonymous claims, "[p]ublicly, the Bush administration estimates that 2011 is the soonest that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon."

Moreover, IAEA officials have reportedly disputed the anonymous U.S. officials' claims about the agency's briefing. Knight Ridder noted that a "diplomat close to the IAEA ... said the development [of the 164 centrifuges] conformed to the agency's timeline and that IAEA experts didn't view it with alarm."

On March 25, the Associated Press reported that a senior IAEA official called the U.S. claims about the briefing "pure speculation and misinformation" and that a "diplomat in Vienna" -- where the IAEA is headquartered -- "said some U.S. administration officials were misrepresenting" the briefing:

But reflecting exasperation, a senior agency official dropped such reservations Saturday as he called the U.S. claims that an agency briefing on the advances made by Iran on enrichment was a bombshell "pure speculation and misinformation."

"It comes from people who are seeking a crisis, not a solution" to the confrontation over Iran, the official said.

The senior IAEA official did not offer details on the spat.

But a diplomat in Vienna, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, said some U.S. administration officials were misrepresenting a recent briefing by the agency to Vienna-based representatives of America, Russia, China, France, and Britain -- the five permanent Security Council members.

The information on where Iran was on enrichment and where it was headed was not new, but the U.S. officials claimed "the ... IAEA was blown away by (Iran's) progress and had the U.S. redefining its timeline" for Iran's capacity to make its first nuclear weapon down to three years, the diplomat told The Associated Press.

Just last year, U.S. officials cited intelligence estimating Iran would need 10 years for its first bomb.

The March 23 Knight Ridder article also noted that David Albright, a former IAEA inspector who is now president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), "said he was skeptical" that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by 2008 and that his "worst-case scenario" was 2009.

In a January 12 ISIS report, Albright and Corey Hinderstein noted that this "worst case assessment" is "highly uncertain" and that U.S. intelligence community analysts believe that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon by 2009 because of the likelihood that Iran will encounter significant "technical difficulties":

This result reflects a worst case assessment, and thus is highly uncertain. Though some analysts at the IAEA believe that Iran could assemble centrifuges quicker, other analysts, including those in the US intelligence community, appear to believe that a date of 2009 would be overly optimistic. They believe that Iran is likely to encounter technical difficulties that would significantly delay bringing a centrifuge plant into operation. Factors causing delay include Iran having trouble making so many centrifuges in that time period or it taking longer than expected to overcome difficulties in operating the cascades or building a centrifuge plant.

Similarly, a March 31 Los Angeles Times article reported that -- contrary to Kondracke's "summer 2007" claim -- some Bush "administration and European officials have suggested that Iran could make enough enriched uranium for a bomb in three years." The Los Angeles Times added: "Many other experts say the technical difficulties would make such a short time frame almost impossible."

From the March 30 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BARNES: And also Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said, "Oh, the Iranians are a long ways from getting any nuclear weapons," or something, and so, he thought it would be a bad idea, as well, to go to sanctions.

[...]

KONDRACKE: First, the experts that I talked to think that on the basis of what the Iranians have announced that they are going to do, as to enrichment, that they can -- they will have -- they will be able to have enough fissile material of their own making for a bomb sometime next summer, summer 2007, which means that time --

WALLACE: So, a little over a year?

KONDRACKE: Yeah, which means the time is short.

[...]

LIASSON: And, as Mort said, time is running out. Pretty soon, Iran is going to have the bomb. And I agree: Now, it's going to be up to Congress. It's going to be up to the -- I think, in a month, it will be up to Congress. It will be up to the coalition of the willing to see what it can do.

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