Did Joe Biden Just Go Soft on Iran?

In my Bloomberg View column, I made the observation that Barack Obama's foreign policy record is far from flawless. On Syria, he is AWOL; he has helped create a situation in which both the Palestinian leader and the Israeli leader don't trust him, and so on. On Iran, of course, I think he's been generally stalwart, but I took note of the fact that Joe Biden, in his debate with Paul Ryan, seemed very nonchalant about the challenges posed by Iran's nuclear program. Here's an excerpt:

"Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan's seriousness on Iran matches the president's.

In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan "talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know -- we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about?"

Biden's statement represents a mostly unnoticed, but dramatic, deviation from the administration's line on Iran. It was also technically inaccurate.

A country must do three things to have a deliverable nuclear weapon: Enrich uranium; design and make a warhead; and build a delivery system. The Iranians are already enriching uranium, and are moving their centrifuges underground. They already have ballistic missiles. They could design and manufacture a warhead in as little as six months.

"Biden made it sound as if we shouldn't worry, we have tons of time," David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me. He said weapons manufacturing can also be done more surreptitiously than uranium enrichment. "You only need a very small facility," Albright said. "It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering."

In response to this column, Zack Beauchamp, writing on the Think Progress security blog, writes:

Goldberg worries the United States, Israel, and other allies would not be able to track Iran's progress in enriching uranium to the purity needed for a nuclear weapon and quotes non proliferation expert David Albright saying, "You only need a very small facility [to make weapons]. It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering." But a recent report, which Albright coauthored, highlights the difficulty for Iran to "breakout" and enrich to 90 percent levels for weapons without getting caught, and so it wouldn't in the near term:

Although Iran's breakout times are shortening, an Iranian breakout in the next year could not escape detection by the IAEA or the United States. Furthermore, the United States and its allies maintain the ability to respond forcefully to any Iranian decision to break out. During the next year or so, breakout times at Natanz and Fordow appear long enough to make an Iranian decision to break out risky. Therefore, ISIS assesses that Iran is unlikely to break out at Natanz or at Fordow in the near term, barring unforeseen developments such as a pre-emptive military strike.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors also routinely inspect Iran's nuclear facilities, which would make it very hard for Iran to leap towards a bomb without getting caught red-handed -- a key point which was highlighted at a recent CAP event on U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran.

Beauchamp inaccurately describes my complaint about Biden's statement. Biden was talking specifically about warhead design and manufacture, which can easily be done in secret. He wasn't talking about the enrichment process. And neither was I. The enrichment process is becoming truncated, but nuclear break-out would still be noticed (unless it was being done in a facility not yet discovered by inspectors or by Western intelligence agencies). My worry is that the Iranians get all the other components of a nuclear weapons program in place -- a working warhead, a reliable delivery system -- and only then move to 90 percent enrichment of uranium. There would still be time for a strike, unless, of course, the West decides that it needs more time to contemplate a strike..

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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