Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said, marking Washington’s first such assessment.
“We think they do, quite frankly,” Mullen told CNN on Sunday when asked if Iran had enough nuclear material to manufacture an atomic bomb.
“And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I’ve believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world,” said Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen’s remarks came in the wake of a report by the UN nuclear watchdog that said Tehran had made major strides in its uranium enrichment work.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Tehran now has 1,010kg of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (LEU) from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz.
That “is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability,” said David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran’s nuclear program.
A breakout capability is defined as securing enough low-enriched uranium, used for nuclear fuel, to turn into highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for nuclear weapons. While IAEA experts put the amount needed for an atomic bomb at about 1,700k of LEU, some analysts believe that smaller quantities might be enough.
Iran denies its atomic work is designed to build a nuclear arsenal and says it wants to develop nuclear technology to generate electricity for a growing population.
Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that Natanz was not configured to produce HEU.
Round-the-clock surveillance, the presence of inspectors and the ability of UN inspectors to make unannounced inspections made it “practically impossible” for Iran to switch from making low-enriched to high-enriched uranium, he said.
“The world would know within a second,” he said.
The US and its European allies have previously expressed concern that Iran could soon have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon but Mullen’s more definitive comments went a step further.
The White House declined to comment on Sunday.
But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates struck a more cautious note on Iran’s nuclear project.
“I think that there has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? They’re not close to a stockpile. They’re not close to a weapon at this point. And so, there is some time,” Gates told NBC’s Meet the Press.
He said diplomacy carried a greater chance of success now that oil prices had dropped, enhancing the effect of economic sanctions on Iran, which relies heavily on oil revenue.
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