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International pressure, internal strife, technical challenges and foggy intelligence are all reasons why there has been such an ambiguous and fluctuating assessment about if and when Iran will have a nuclear bomb.
The report this weekend that Iran "made significant progress" in its 20-year pursuit of nuclear weapons only dealt with efforts to weaponize their Shihab missile warheads. While it may make a mockery of Iranian statements that they are only seeking a nuclear program for peaceful use, it says nothing about just how close they are at making their own nuclear weapons.
This past year has seen the Israeli assessment modified a number of times. Israel has traditionally been the most pessimistic. In early 2005 Israel's defense voices such as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash) and Mossad head Meir Dagan all said that by the end of the year Iran would reach the point of no return - the ability to enrich uranium. If this happened, then Teheran could possibly develop its first atomic bomb by 2007.
One very senior intelligence source said a year ago that in a worst-case scenario, i.e. all-out effort without international intervention, Iran could produce a bomb within 24 months.
Later this year, the semi-official assessment was changed from 2008 at the earliest and more likely 2012. This was mainly due to a change in the view that the Iranian secret military track was not actually running on its own but was dependent on the civilian track.
Confusion was further sown by cryptic statements from former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy a few months ago that despite its intense efforts, Iran would not be able to "get there." He did not elaborate.
"Until now there have been a lot of timetables and none of them can be proven," said Ephraim Kam, author of From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat. "It is not clear where the Iranians are because it's difficult to get intelligence from the inside and we are always discovering new information."
Kam, who is deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said that while Israel gave the Iranians about three years, the United States gave them another year or more. Others assessed it would be a decade at least before Iran was able to produce its own nuclear weapons.
"About three [years] would be reasonable," Kam predicted.
Kam explained that the fluctuations in the assessment were dependent on two main issues. He said the discovery of a secret Iranian process would shorten the estimated timetable. It would be lengthened if there were more diplomatic efforts and more pressure on Teheran.
According to Kam, the international efforts of the past two years have succeeded in putting back the Iranian nuclear program by one year.
While there may be disagreement in the defense establishment over the timetable, most do not believe it could be halted and that Iran will eventually have the bomb.
Even IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz addressed this matter in a speech over the weekend.
"Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons because that is in its national interest. I'm convinced that the level of international pressure that is applied, and that will be applied, can slow down this process, but I doubt it can stop it," Halutz said.
"The State of Israel doesn't need to lead any campaign against Iran. The Iranian problem is not an Israeli problem. From our perspective, we need to do all that is necessary so that if a threat materializes, we will be able to deal with it, and there are tools to do so," Halutz said.