US paper: 'At least 18 months until Iran has bomb'

At least 18 months unti

White House officials say that current conditions in Iran make the country especially vulnerable to targeted sanctions, according to a report Sunday in The New York Times. Also, Iran specialists in the US assess that for technical and other reasons Iran will only be able to produce a weapon in 18 months or longer. Domestic unrest not abating since the disputed elections that gave incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another term, together with technical difficulties Iran is facing in its nuclear program present the West with an opportunity to significantly weaken the country's powerful Revolutionary Guards, directing sanctions specifically at the Guards, the instrument of the regime responsible for the program, said the Times Strategists working for US President Barack Obama are quoted by the paper as saying that while Iran's top political and military leaders are insistent on producing a nuclear military option, turmoil in the streets is distracting them and the drive to produce nuclear fuel remains only partially successful. Teheran's current troubles "give us a window to impose the first sanctions that may make the Iranians think the nuclear program isn't worth the price tag," an official involved in setting the White House's Iran policy is quoted by the Times as saying. The paper cites the exposure of the facility at Qom late last year as foiling Iran's best chance of producing nuclear fuel away from Western eyes. Additionally, it said that the number of uranium-churning centrifuges at the Natanz facility had dropped by 20 percent since the summer, a decline nuclear experts attribute to technical problems. "For now, the Iranians don't have a credible breakout option, and we don't think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years," a senior administration official at the center of the White House's Iran strategy told the paper. The US reportedly convinced its Western allies - primarily Israel - that the new time frame estimates would allow the sanctions to be effective. Israeli officials "now feel that what's happening in Iran makes the country vulnerable to real sanctions," and might give Obama more time to persuade China and Russia to go along, another US official told the Times. An unnamed Israeli diplomat in Washington told the paper that in private conversations "Obama has convinced us that it's worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months." A US ultimatum on the diplomatic approach toward Iran ended on December 31, 2009. Israel Radio reported that Israeli officials in Jerusalem expect sanctions, however, not to be imposed in the coming month while China still heads the UN Security Council, but only when France assumes the rotating leadership next month. China, together with Russia, has so far blocked attempts to toughen international sanctions against the Islamic republic.