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US: Iran Several Years from Nuclear Weapons Capability


Israeli PM Sharon (left) and President Bush
U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stressed concern about Iran's nuclear program in his meeting Monday with President Bush. The State Department says the United States shares Israeli concerns, but believes Iran will not have a nuclear weapons capability before the beginning of the next decade.

News reports quoting Israeli officials say Prime Minister Sharon gave President Bush photographs of Iranian nuclear sites and told him Iran was near a point of no return in acquiring the know-how for a nuclear weapon.

While not providing details of the Texas conversation, Bush administration officials confirmed the issue came up, though the State Department appeared to differ with Israel on the immediacy of the Iranian nuclear threat.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States shares the concern of Israel and others in the international community about secret Iranian nuclear fuel-cycle activities, for which he said there can be no explanation other than a bomb project.

But in a departure from the usual practice of declining to discuss such matters, Mr. Boucher said the view of U.S. intelligence is that Iran is several years away from having an actual nuclear weapon.

"Our intelligence community has used in the past an estimate that said that Iran was not likely to acquire a nuclear weapon before the beginning of the next decade. That remains the case. But I don't think there's any dispute that Iran should not have the capabilities, the programs, that have been used and that can be used as cover for nuclear weapons development," he said.

Both Mr. Boucher and White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush, in his meeting with the Israeli leader, stressed the importance of European Union efforts to persuade Iran to end its nuclear activities.

Last month to bolster the initiative, the Bush administration said it would join the so-called EU-3, Britain, France and Germany, in offering Iran incentives to permanently end uranium enrichment and provide objective guarantees that it is not trying to develop a weapon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this included a U.S. offer to drop its opposition to Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and to allow the sale to Iran of spare parts for its aging fleet of U.S.-made civilian airliners.

The European initiative began in October 2003 with an unprecedented joint visit to Tehran by the British, French and German foreign ministers. The talks have continued intermittently since then, with no breakthrough.

Under questioning, spokesman Boucher declined to assess the state of the talks. But he said the United States believes that it is time for Iran to take the opportunity posed by the European initiative to end covert activities aimed at a nuclear weapons capability.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Mr. Sharon complained to President Bush that the European nations were softening their approach and may be willing to allow Iran to retain a limited uranium enrichment capability.

Mr. Boucher said the U.S. view is very clear that Iran's current suspension of enrichment must become permanent, and that this is the only way to satisfy international concerns.

Iran, which maintains its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, has in the past argued that it has the right to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle for civilian power plants.

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