There was plenty of foreign policy fodder for Republicans in last night’s Vice Presidential debate, particularly Vice President Biden’s claims that the administration was unaware of requests for additional security in Benghazi. In terms of understanding policy differences between the candidates, however, the most significant (and so far largely unreported) moment, came in the exchange on Iran. In response to Chairman Ryan’s point that Iran had made enormous progress enriching uranium under this administration, Biden said, "the Israelis and the United States — our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close — how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away."
Explaining why he was reassured about the Iranian timeline, Biden continued:
"When my friend 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? … We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don’t have a weapon to put it into. Let’s all calm down a little bit here."
Biden, in other words, didn’t contest Ryan’s argument about Iran’s rapidly growing enrichment capabilities, but said in essence that progress on enrichment was beside the point because Iran does not today have a nuclear device.
There are numerous problems with the vice president’s comments, and they raise significant cause for concern about current U.S. strategy for ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
To begin with, there is no dispute among nuclear experts that the most complicated challenge in developing a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material, not the process of developing the nuclear device itself. Enrichment is, as experts like to say, the "long pole in the tent." With sufficient weapons grade fuel, the Iranians would already be at the threshold of nuclear breakthrough. In fact, in 2009 the IAEA assessed that as early as 2004, Iran had developed the know-how to build a crude nuclear device that could be delivered by aircraft or ship.
Biden’s focus on the development of the device itself, rather than the manufacture of weapons grade duel, suggests that the administration redline in Iran ("we’ll stop them from getting a bomb") wouldn’t kick in until Iran is on our 5 yard line.
Second, the vice president revealed a worrying overconfidence in the intelligence community’s ability to detect nuclear weaponization activities, which are easily concealed. As most intelligence professionals will tell you, they aren’t infallible; getting accurate intelligence on a nation’s most closely guarded secrets and interpreting it correctly are notoriously difficult tasks.
Although the Vice President cited Israeli agreement with his point, the Israelis have steadfastly taken the opposite view. As PM Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech:
"For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they’re still vulnerable.
In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator — the fuse — in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months.
The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That’s a country that’s bigger than France, Germany, Italy, and Britain combined.
The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won’t find that facility either.
So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb."
In fact, German, French, UK, and Israeli intelligence believe that the U.S. intelligence community is already missing evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponization capabilities, a point bolstered by the 2011 safeguards report on Iran from the IAEA in which detailed evidence is available here.
Biden’s statement — assuming it reflects the thinking of the administration broadly — reveals a great deal about the administration’s approach to Iran, none of it reassuring. It explains why the administration has been dismissive of Israeli concerns. It may also partly explain administration ambivalence about Congressional sanctions; if there is no urgency to the threat, there is a less compelling case in the administration’s view for robust sanctions against foreign companies. And it tells us that the Obama administration may be naively betting U.S. and Israeli security on the assumption that our intelligence community has perfect insight into activities in Iran.