Intelligence analysts are constantly updating their estimates, and politicians are always asking for the latest timetables. The problem is, it’s an impossible question. It might also be the wrong one to ask.
Despite the rhetoric from Iran’s president, the country’s nuclear program up to now has not been “like a train without brakes” moving inexorably toward the ultimate weapon. Iran has devoted billions of dollars, a large share of its impressive scientific establishment, and nearly three decades of work toward mastering nuclear technology, yet it has no nuclear arsenal. Compared to Pakistan, which had a far inferior technical foundation yet was able to acquire nuclear weapons capability in about a decade, Iran seems to be dragging its feet.
The really interesting question, then, is not when will Iran have the bomb, but rather why don’t they already, and how can we keep it that way?
In some important ways, nuclear weapons are just like any other tool that governments might choose to acquire. Though our political systems are vastly different, Iran’s decision-making process over whether to build nuclear weapons is not so unlike any decision that the U.S. government must make. There are short-term interests and long-term ones, domestic and international considerations, and the messy process of bringing personalities and institutions together to make a complicated choice with complicated ramifications. And it all occurs within a very specific political environment.