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Colin Kahl responds to Matt Kroenig

January 17, 2012

Foreign Affairs has gone live with Colin Kahl’s explanation of why we shouldn’t commence bombing in five minutes. A sample:

In arguing for a six-month horizon, Kroenig also misleadingly conflates hypothetical timelines to produce weapons-grade uranium with the time actually required to construct a bomb. According to 2010 Senate testimony by James Cartwright, then vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and recent statements by the former heads of Israel’s national intelligence and defense intelligence agencies, even if Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in six months, it would take it at least a year to produce a testable nuclear device and considerably longer to make a deliverable weapon. And David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (and the source of Kroenig’s six-month estimate), recently told Agence France-Presse that there is a “low probability” that the Iranians would actually develop a bomb over the next year even if they had the capability to do so. Because there is no evidence that Iran has built additional covert enrichment plants since the Natanz and Qom sites were outed in 2002 and 2009, respectively, any near-term move by Tehran to produce weapons-grade uranium would have to rely on its declared facilities. The IAEA would thus detect such activity with sufficient time for the international community to mount a forceful response. As a result, the Iranians are unlikely to commit to building nuclear weapons until they can do so much more quickly or out of sight, which could be years off.

There’s no question in my mind that Colin gets the better of Matt in this debate, but I think a bit of background might be of interest to Duck readers.

Colin (who is literally “one of the smartest guys in the room”) recently stepped down as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for the Middle East in the Office of the Secretary of Defense(Policy). Matt had an International Affairs Fellowship (IAF) during the 2010-2011 academic year; Colin arranged for Matt to spend the fellowship in his office. Matt worked there part time, as I understand it, writing and assisting with analytic reports. I did a similar stint in Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (RUE), although I did less analytic work and more backfill. In other words, Matt was basically a high-level intern and Colin was his boss. That, of course, doesn’t invalidate Matt’s arguments–they rise and fall on their own. But it does provide some reason to put more faith in Colin’s expertise (and hands-on knowledge of) Iranian-US security dynamics than in Matt’s.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.