Why Has Iran Slowed Its Nuclear Program—on Purpose?

According to Israeli intelligence, cyberattacks and malfunctions were only part of the reason for the deceleration.


Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't afraid to get dramatic at the United Nations last year when, in a speech about the dangers of Iran's alleged nuclear program, he used a prop. Two, actually: a chart and a red marker. In case the seriousness of the threat wasn't clear, Netanyahu had done the math -- and showed his work.

The prime minister's appeal was practically made for contemporary Web journalism (Iran's enrichment program, IN ONE CHART) but it's also been the focus of some pushback. Netanyahu faces a growing coalition of Israeli security officials who believe a preemptive attack on Iran would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

Those who oppose a strike -- "the vegetarians," in the parlance of The New Yorker's David Remnick -- seemed to win another small victory last night, with Israeli intelligence sources telling McClatchy's Sheera Frenkel not only that Iran's uranium enrichment program has slowed, but that the deceleration was intentional:

Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel's military and political echelons now think it's unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.

"Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted," said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of "mishaps" that interrupted work at Iran's nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.

"We can't attribute the delays in Iran's nuclear program to accidents and sabotage alone," he said. "There has not been the run towards a nuclear bomb that some people feared. There is a deliberate slowing on their end."

Intelligence assessments like these should always be treated carefully and with some skepticism. We've been wrong before. Still, if it is true that Tehran has independently decided to slow its activity, that leads to one of three conclusions: a) the regime is slowing its advance until such a time as international sanctions would be irrelevant in an open, breakneck race to the finish; b) Iran still plans to complete a nuclear weapon in secret, but at a slower pace to minimize the risk of detection; or c) rather than a temporary, tactical slowdown, what we're looking at is a long-term, strategic decision to stop just short of building a bomb.

The last is an idea we've explored before. For the most part, the incentives line up: by pursuing a latent nuclear capability only, Iran would be able to claim a symbolic victory over the West -- no small feat, especially considering the potential domestic payoff -- and it would give the West an out, as Tehran would not technically have crossed the Obama administration's red line.

There's little doubt Netanyahu is still in favor of a strike. And defining what "latent" really means can be a tricky business. But the prime minister faces higher domestic barriers than ever to carrying out an attack, and what evidence we have is only mounting in the vegetarians' favor. What's more, the content of the latest data makes it hard to ignore that maybe, Iran is having second thoughts, too.