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Jeffrey Goldberg: ‘Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran’

Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg pans Joe Biden’s debate performance on the topic of Iran’s nuclear program.

He writes:

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Romney was handed an additional gift last week by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past three years, I’ve been impressed with Obama’s seriousness on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which he treats the subject, and the measures he has taken to keep the regime from crossing the atomic threshold. But last week, in the vice-presidential debate, Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan’s seriousness on Iran matches the president’s.

In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan “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?”

Biden’s statement represents a mostly unnoticed, but dramatic, deviation from the administration’s line on Iran. It was also technically inaccurate.

A country must do three things to have a deliverable nuclear weapon: Enrich uranium; design and make a warhead; and build a delivery system. The Iranians are already enriching uranium, and are moving their centrifuges underground. They already have ballistic missiles. They could design and manufacture a warhead in as little as six months.

“Biden made it sound as if we shouldn’t worry, we have tons of time,” David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me. He said weapons manufacturing can also be done more surreptitiously than uranium enrichment. “You only need a very small facility,” Albright said. “It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering.”

Zack Beauchamp on Think Progress counters that Biden was actually right. (As a point of evidence, Beauchamp cites a report that Albright co-authored.)

I had argued after the debate that Biden seemed to be staking out new ground for the Obama administration by focusing so intently on the issue of building a weapon and seemingly downplaying enrichment.

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