Israel's spy chief estimates that Iran will have its first nuclear weapon in "three or four years," if the program continues on its current pace.
General Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, made the comments in an address to the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense commission, according to Army radio.
Dagan's timeline on the Iranian nuclear program was one of the most specific offered by a senior Israeli official. In previous estimates, Israel's political and military leaders have been deliberately vague in their assessments, observing that Iran would have the required "technology" or "know how" in a matter of months, but rarely offering a specific timetable for when Tehran might actually have a nuclear device. General Dagan had previously described the Iranian nuclear program as the "greatest threat" to Israel since its founding in 1948.
The Mossad Chief apparently did not reveal what the timetable was based on. The assessment suggests that the Israelis may have obtained better information on Iran's nuclear program, or have elected to reveal that data for the first time. The Israeli timeline is much shorter than some U.S. estimates, which believe Iran may be a decade away from its first atomic weapon.
Interestingly, the Mossad estimate seems to jibe with an assessment we published earlier this year, suggesting that timeline of 2009-2010. We certainly don't claim to be clairvoyant--or have a pipeline into Israeli intelligence; indeed, our assessment was based on Iran's public statements about the size of its centrifuge array, and plans to expand it. Based on those numbers, Iran might have enough fissionable material to produce its first bomb by the end of this decade.
Of course, there are still significant technical hurdles to overcome, including successful design/testing of a trigger device, and making the entire package small enough to fit inside a gravity bomb and (eventually) a missile warhead. But General Dagan apparently believes that those problems can be overcome relatively easy, meaning that Iran will have a nuclear weapon soon, and a decision for potential military action may be required in a matter of months, rather than years.
As always, we must offer the standard caveats. There is the possibility that Iran has a parallel, covert program that could produce a bomb relatively soon, and General Dagan may be referring to such efforts. Additionally, Israeli statements of this type are always aimed at Washington, and Dagan's comments may be a not-so-veiled hint to the Bush Administration: keep you eye on Iran, and don't put too much hope in those European diplomatic efforts.