Iran told British, French and German officials last month that it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb within a year, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said yesterday in arguing the case for international pressure on the Islamic Republic.
In a speech at the Hudson Institute, Bolton characterized Iran as a grave danger. He said the U.S. strategy would be to isolate rather than "engage" with the country, a tactic European allies are still hoping will work.
Bolton's comments came as the Bush administration is preparing for a key meeting in Vienna. The United States hopes to persuade allies to further rebuke Iran and refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which can impose sanctions or embargoes.
"They've told the EU three [Britain, France and Germany] that they could produce, they could enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon within a year and they could produce nuclear weapons within the range of our own assessment, which is a way of threatening the Europeans to get them to back down," Bolton said of Iran.
It remains unclear whether Iran is capable of carrying out its threat. U.S. officials say Iranian diplomats may have been bluffing when they met with European officials in Paris in July. And there were discrepancies between Bolton's account and those of European and U.S. diplomats, who said that Iran's deputy negotiator, Hoseyn Moussavian, said Iran could start enriching uranium within a year, but it would take longer to enrich enough for a weapon.
France, Britain and Germany have been trying to persuade Iran through diplomatic means to give up its nuclear ambitions but have had little success. Iran insists its nuclear efforts are aimed at producing energy, not weapons, but it agreed to suspend questionable activities. That deal collapsed in June after Iran was rebuked by the IAEA for failing to fully cooperate with international inspectors.
Still, the European powers have been reluctant to go to the Security Council and want to avoid sanctions or the possibility of an oil-embargo. Their strategy remains negotiations and diplomacy, which Bolton indicated was increasingly failing.
"This regime has to be isolated in its bad behavior, not quote-unquote engaged," Bolton said.
European and U.S. intelligence estimates are that Iran is concealing its nuclear capabilities and could be five years away from building a bomb.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been scouring Iran for signs of a weapons programs and are trying to verify Iran's claims. They have uncovered some contradictions and omissions, but no direct proof of a weapons program. The inspectors are investigating nearly a dozen suspicious elements of Iran's nuclear program, including sophisticated centrifuge parts and equipment bought on a nuclear black market run out of Pakistan.
"It is the accumulation of this public and uncontradicted evidence, not just our own sensitive intelligence information, that leads us to our conclusions about Iran's true objectives," Bolton said.
Bolton also cited a recent press report that said Iran had tried to buy deuterium gas from Russia. The substance could be used to boost an explosion in a nuclear bomb.
Two U.S. officials said the press report could not be substantiated.