US President Barack Obama told an Israeli television station on Thursday that his administration believed it would take Iran “over a year or so” to develop a nuclear weapon, and he vowed that the US would do whatever was necessary to prevent that from happening.
Less than a week before his first visit as president to Israel, Obama pledged to continue diplomatic efforts, but he promised that the US would keep all options on the table to ensure that Iran did not become a nuclear threat to its neighbors.
“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told the Israeli station, Channel 2 TV.
He said his message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “will be the same as before: ‘If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution.’”
“But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table,” he added.
Obama’s estimated timeline contrasts with Netanyahu’s stated belief that Israel and its Western allies are likely to have to intervene by the spring or summer, when, he says, Iran’s scientists will have enriched enough uranium to become a nuclear threat.
Iran denies that its nuclear program has any military aim.
The question of how close Iran is to being able to use a nuclear weapon has generated friction between the two leaders and will be at the center of their security discussions.
Obama is scheduled to spend two days in Israel before visiting the West Bank and Jordan.
Obama has rarely been so specific about how long US intelligence agencies estimate it will take Iran to build a bomb.
In defining the problem as he did — when Iran could get a weapon, rather than when it could have the capability to build one — he subtly indicated that he and Netanyahu still saw the problem in very different terms.
The Israeli position has long been that Iran must be denied the capability to piece a weapon together.
Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Ehud Barak, argue that if Iran is just a few screwdriver turns away from being able to construct a weapon, it will have the same power in the region as if it actually had one.
When Netanyahu held up a picture of a cartoon-like bomb at the UN last year, with a red line drawn near the top, he was creating his boundary: Iran could not possess enough nuclear fuel to produce a single weapon.
Israeli officials say that, in real numbers, that means it cannot be allowed to hold 240kg or so of uranium enriched to a medium level of purity. From there, they have argued, it would take Iran only a few months to build a bomb.
Obama, in the interview, offered a different estimate: How long it would take Iran to build a full weapon. That would mean enriching enough uranium; fashioning it into a weapon, surrounded by detonators; and being able to be delivered by airplane, cargo ship or missile.
In saying that day was more than a year away, he was echoing what intelligence agencies have said to him about their estimates of Iran’s “breakout” capability — how long it would take Iranian nuclear scientists to turn their stockpiles of fuel into a working weapon.
Obama has never talked about stopping Iran from achieving weapons capability.
Behind Obama’s estimate was a confidence that a combination of sanctions and sabotage has bought some time for diplomatic negotiations.
The sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to obtain hard currency or parts.
A series of cyberattacks on Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant, codenamed Olympic Games, began during former US president George W. Bush’s administration and was accelerated by Obama. It bought some time, although there is a dispute about how much.
However, in the interview, Obama made it clear his administration would not wait forever.
“There is a window, not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically,” the US president said. “They are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community.”