'Iran could build bomb within a year'

Exclusive: But while US, Israel agree on time frame, both say it is an unlikely "worst case scenario."

sarkozy pointing at himself 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
sarkozy pointing at himself 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Both the US and Israel believe Iran has the technical capacity to build one nuclear bomb within a year if it decides to do so, but both countries also believe the chances that Teheran will indeed make that decision are slim, according to assessments made known to The Jerusalem Post. According to these Israeli assessments, there is not much difference now between the US and Israel regarding a timeline for a "worst case scenario" on Iran's development of a bomb. At the same time, both Jerusalem and Washington currently believe that "worst case scenario is not likely to materialize." The assessments come in the wake of comments made Sunday by US Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the effect that Iran could be as little as a year away from completing a nuclear bomb, while Mossad head Meir Dagan recently surprised many by saying Iran won't have a nuclear weapon until 2014. "I would be careful about all the declarations on this matter," said one senior government official who deals with the issue, adding that a decision by Teheran to go full throttle toward the building of a bomb was dependent on numerous different decisions the government would have to make, and which it had simply not yet made. In the meantime, the official said, the Iranians have decided to continue to enrich as much low grade uranium as they can, and to also continue development in the field of ballistic missiles at a level that would not make their situation with the international community much worse than it already is. Some American and Israeli experts have long argued that, rather than pushing for a bomb the moment they can, the Iranians may want to gain the potential capacity, over a longer period, to build an entire nuclear arsenal - and then stay weeks or months away from final bomb-making but ready to make the ultimate push should they so choose. The international community, meanwhile, signaled on Thursday that it was still keeping its eye on the nuclear issue, with the G-8 leaders giving Iran until late September to accept negotiations over the issue. The US is still waiting for an Iranian answer to President Barack Obama's offer of engagement on the nuclear issue. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the situation would be reviewed at a G-20 meeting of developed and developing countries in Pittsburgh on September 24, and that "if there is no progress by then, we will have to take decisions." A unilateral attack by Israel on Iran to thwart the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions would be an "absolute catastrophe," Sarkozy was quoted by AFP as saying on Thursday after the G-8 summit in Italy. From an Israeli perspective, the senior government official explained, the G-8 deadline included both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, there has been a degree of concern in Jerusalem since the events that followed the June elections in Iran that the international community would try to push back the timetable on the nuclear issue until the dust cleared in Teheran. The G-8 statement, the official said, strengthened the sense in Jerusalem that the international community was sending a message that "time is of the essence," and that international stocktaking of Iran's position on the issue would take place regardless of Iran's internal situation. On the negative side of the ledger from an Israel perspective, however, was that the G-8 deadline was also a sign the international community was sill locked into "engagement" mode, dashing any thinly held hope in Jerusalem that the Iranian regime's brutal repression of the protests there would lead toward immediate sanctions. According to the senior government official, under the current timetable Iran had until September to give a decision on engagement. If the talks began, then by the end of the year - as Obama said in May during his meeting in Washington with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - there would be a reassessment of the situation, and a determination whether to continue dialogue or take more serious sanctions. Regarding the contradictory messages that came out of Washington this week as to whether the US was giving Israel a green light for military action, with Vice President Joe Biden implying that a green light was being given, and Obama categorically denying that, the official said that Obama has been consistent in speaking against an Israeli military action. What needed to be explained, the official said, were Biden's comments. "Biden's comments seem to have come out of the blue," he said. "There has been no discussion with the US over the last few months about the possibility of an attack." The official said it was also not clear how the recent events on the ground in Iran would impact on the nuclear issue. On the one hand, he said, the protests have highlighted the vulnerability of the regime, which now appears significantly weaker than it was before the elections and their aftermath. On the other hand, the official said, many believe that Iran's foreign policy and its policy on the nuclear issue will only become more intransigent as a result of the developments. "There is a contradiction," the official said. "While the regime is more vulnerable than in the past to pressure from the international community, this may lead in the early stages to a hardening of its positions." "When you are weak domestically, you can't show that you are weak externally as well. The opposite is true," he said. "You have to take a tougher stand with the world so they don't conclude that because you are under domestic pressure, you will fold under external pressure." According to this logic, if the Iranians were willing to absorb the harsh international criticism that came with cutting down the reformers, then they would also be willing to absorb international censure in going forward with the nuclear program. The international community, however, is now more prepared to impose serious sanctions on Iran than it was before the recent events, the official added. If just a few months ago the assessment in Jerusalem was that European governments were ready to impose significant sanctions on the Iranians, but that European public opinion was not supportive, now the situation has changed dramatically and public opinion favors sanctions. In the past the European public seemed "completely apathetic as to what was happening inside Iran," the senior government official said, adding that pictures broadcast from Teheran, and the brutal manner in which the government put down the reform movement, has significantly altered the public mood in Europe.•