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. US says Iran at least five years away from nuclear arms
WASHINGTON (AFP) Apr 13, 2005
The United States, responding to reported Israeli fears Iran was near "a point of no return" in its nuclear program, said Wednesday Tehran was at least five years away from developing nuclear arms.

US officials confirmed that Iran's nuclear ambitions were discussed by President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at their Texas summit Monday.

The New York Times said Sharon spread out photos of Iranian nuclear sites and cited Israeli intelligence that showed Iran was near "a point of no return" in developing the know-how to produce a bomb.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the international community was concerned about Iran's intentions, but US intelligence suggested Tehran still had a ways to go in developing nuclear weapons.

"Our intelligence community has used in the past an estimate that said that Iran was not likely to acquire a nuclear weapon before the beginning of the next decade. That remains the case," he said.

"But I don't think there's any dispute that Iran should not have the capabilities, the programs that have been used and that can be used as cover for nuclear weapons development."

Estimates of Iran's nuclear arms capability have varied over the years. In 1994, then CIA Director James Woolsey said the belief was that Iran was eight to 10 years away from building such weapons.

The reliability of intelligence has also come into question. A presidential commission reported two weeks ago that US agencies knew "disturbingly little" about the weapons programs of Iran and other potential threats.

The United States charges that oil-rich Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to cover up a quest for atomic weapons. Tehran fervently denies the accusation.

In his presentation to Bush, Sharon reportedly expressed frustration that efforts by France, Germany and Britain to wean Iran off its nuclear ambitions through trade, security and technology incentives were stalling.

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Bush "talked about the importance of supporting the European efforts."

"What we are doing is continuing to support the Europeans in their efforts to get Iran to abandon their nuclear weapon ambitions, and the president talked about the diplomatic efforts going on by the Europeans," McClellan said.

Boucher also reaffirmed US opposition to suggestions that the Iranians be permitted to maintain a limited level of uranium-enrichment activity as some Europeans were reportedly proposing.

"The position of the United States and I think many other members of the international community has been and continues to be that the suspension of enrichment activity needs to be made permanent," he said.

McClellan refused to discuss the reported Israeli photographs or whether Bush had told Sharon that Israel should not take matters into its own hands, echoing Vice President Dick Cheney's warning in January.

"We all have a shared concern and a shared goal, our shared goal is to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. That would be a very destabilizing factor in the region," said the spokesman.

"We continue to support those (European) diplomatic efforts to resolve this in a peaceful manner," said McClellan.

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