British spy chief says Iran is two years from nuclear bomb

Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, said the British spy agency has tried unsuccessfully to thwart Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and warned that US and Israeli retaliation was likely.

Hamed Jafarnejad/Fars News Agency/AP
In this July 3 photo, a surface-to-surface missile is launched during an Iranian Revolutionary Guards maneuver in an undisclosed location in Iran.

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In a rare public remark, the head of Britain’s spy agency said that British agents had stopped Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as early as 2008. But despite the spy agency's efforts, the Islamic Republic is two years from getting an atomic arsenal, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said.

If this happens, Israel and the United States are likely to take, or seriously consider, military action against Iran, he added.

“The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons; all the technologies they need,” Sir John said, according to The Telegraph. “It’s equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state.… I think it will be very tough for any prime minister of Israel or president of the United States to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Sir John – who was "once the ranking British diplomat on the Iranian nuclear issue," according to The New York Times – made the remarks at a recent gathering of 100 senior British civil servants in London. It was his second public address since taking the helm of MI6 in 2009, reports Agence France-Presse.

The Telegraph published his remarks just a day after US officials announced a new set of tighter sanctions on Iran, a move that is likely to escalate tensions even further between Iran and the West.

Inside Iran, which has long accused Israel and the West of covert interference meant to impede its nuclear program, Sir John's remarks were met as a grim confirmation of their suspicions. There also appears to be concern about Sir John's prediction that the US and Israel will launch a military strike against Iran. An article by Iran’s state-owned Press TV called his remarks a “tacit signal for his US and Israeli masters to launch a military strike against Iran.”

Iran has long said its nuclear program is for a civilian nuclear energy program, not weapons development. International opinions on Iran’s intentions remain divided, reports The New York Times. Citing a 2007 assessment, American intelligence agencies say that Iran abandoned its weapons program in 2003. Israel and Britain, however, have used the same report to conclude that Iran is working toward a nuclear bomb.

Sir John’s remarks also refocused attention on the four Iranian nuclear scientists who have been assassinated since 2010, with the most recent murder taking place this past January. Iran has long contended that Israel, Britain, and the US were behind the killings. Israel has declined to comment, and the US and Britain have denied any involvement, reports the Jerusalem Post.

Yesterday the US raised new sanctions against Iran meant to further pressure the Islamic Republic to stop developing its nuclear program. According to the US Department of the Treasury, the new sanctions mainly target Iranian “front” companies and banks.

“Iran today is under intense, multilateral sanctions pressure, and we will continue to ratchet up the pressure so long as Iran refuses to address the international community’s well-founded concerns about its nuclear program,” said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a press release by the Treasury.

“Today’s actions are our next step on that path, taking direct aim at disrupting Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as its deceptive efforts to use front companies to sell and move its oil.”

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