Claims that "Iran is building a nuclear weapon any day now" go back several decades. The Christian Science Monitor pointed this out (11/8/11) in a web feature titled, "Imminent Iran Nuclear Threat? A Timeline of Warnings Since 1979." Muhammad Sahimi noted (AntiWar.com, 5/5/10): "In 1997 Israel predicted a new date for Iran having a nuclear bomb: 2005." And blogger Nima Shirazi has an exhaustive catalog of similar statements about Iran's imminent nuclear bombs.
Given all of that history, it would be wise to be skeptical of any new claims.
Which brings us to the CBS Sunday show Face the Nation (7/14/13), where host Bob Schieffer announced at the top of the show:
Only on CBS, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Iran is dangerously close to having a nuclear weapon. And is moving fast to develop an intercontinental missile that could deliver it to the United States.
Schieffer would later add, before the interview began, that they would discuss "the big story overseas"–which is "Iran and its continuing effort to build a nuclear weapon."
Actually Iran is not known to be continuing any such effort–they've long denied it, and the view of U.S. intelligence agencies is that Iran is not known to be pursuing nuclear weapons.
But you'd hardly get that impression from the CBS interview. It began with Netanyahu explaining that the Iranians "have taken heed of the red line that I sketched out at the U.N."– a reference to the speech where he brandished an absurd cartoon drawing of a bomb.
He raised the stakes by claiming that Iran is
building ICBMs to reach the American mainland within a few years. They're pursuing an alternate route of plutonium, that is enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. One route, plutonium. Another route, ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach you.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of these missile claims; and even if they were building such weapons, they would be 5 to 10 years away, according to some experts (Wired, 2/24/12).
If Schieffer was frustrated by anything during the discussion, it was the argument that the United States government should be doing more to back up Israel. He told Netanyahu, "Well, the United States has said that we won't tolerate a nuclear Iran. What else can we say?"
Near the end of the interview, Schieffer asked:
Well, how close are they right now? Are they within a month? Are they within six months of having the capability? How close do you think they are?
As nuclear phycisist Yousaf Butt has argued (Reuters, 2/22/13), if that's the question, then the answer so far is that we don't know that Iran is trying to build a bomb at all. And, more importantly, there is no reason to treat Netanyahu as if he would know this:
Unfortunately, Netanyahu's latest claims about the time line to an Iranian bomb is not a one-off aberration. He has been making such assertions for decades. So it pays to take his views with a boulder of salt.
In 1992, Netanyahu, then a parliamentarian, said Iran was three to five years from a bomb. Then, as now, he was urging the United States to do Israel's dirty work – and, perhaps, suffer the possible blowback – saying the alleged threat must be “uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S."
Netanyahu's crystal ball on Iran was cloudy 20 years ago ‑ and it seems still cloudy now.
Netanyahu's overheated rhetoric generated stories about the Iranian threat in the New York Times and Washington Post today–which is probably the point of him going on Sunday chat shows and making such claims. It doesn't hurt that these venues are unlikely to push back and ask tough questions.