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US officials weigh Iran's nuclear weapons capability

Defense Secretary Gates said Tehran was not close to having a bomb. A new report in which senior advisers to Obama participated urges further sanctions.

By / March 2, 2009

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on Fox News Sunday. According to Mr. Mullen, Iran now has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb.

Freddie Lee/FOX News Sunday/AP

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Iran now has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, according to the most senior US military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

His comment on CNN echoes a recent assessment by the UN's nuclear watchdog on Iran's enrichment program. Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons.

"We think they do, quite frankly," Mullen said on State of The Union with John King. "Iran having a nuclear weapon, I believe ... is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday, however, that Iran wasn't close to having a nuclear bomb, meaning that there was still time for diplomacy and economic sanctions to have an effect. He told NBC that Iran wasn't even close to having a stockpile of uranium that could be used in a bomb, reports the Los Angeles Times. He pointed out that the global slump in oil has hurt Iran and could give the US and its allies greater leverage there.

TIME reports that a spokesman for Admiral Mullen later clarified that he was referring to low-enriched uranium, which is not sufficient in itself to create a bomb. US intelligence agencies suspect Iran is creating the means to build a bomb under the cover of a nuclear energy program – a crucial distinction.

In its February report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had roughly 1 metric ton of low-enriched uranium, which could be enough to arm a warhead, the Guardian reported last month. This assessment came as a surprise because the agency had said in November that Iran had produced only 635 kilograms of the fissile material. Iran has blocked inspectors from a nuclear reactor near the town of Arak and refuses to open up its centrifuge manufacturing facility.

Newsweek correspondent Christopher Dickey writes that Iran hasn't crossed the red line known as "breakout," when it might pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and expel UN inspectors. Such a provocation could start a war, given the implacable opposition by the US and others to a nuclear-armed Iran, the article reports.

What Iran has now achieved, says former inspector David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, is "breakout capability." Perhaps that's all Iran really wants: enough mastery of enrichment to keep the world guessing about its nuclear defenses without provoking massive retaliation. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei tends toward this view. But as Albright says, "We just don't know … I think people should be worried."
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