By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
President Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and
the Israeli public Wednesday that the United States will not let Iran
obtain a nuclear weapon, and the two leaders appeared to move closer on
the issue than in the past.
Some experts, however, say changes in Iran's nuclear program may soon make it too late for anyone to stop it.
subject of Iran came up at a joint news conference with Netanyahu in
Jerusalem, where Obama is on the first day of a three-day trip to the
region. Obama said he hoped that Iran would choose to accept offers of
peaceful resolution to the matter.
"We prefer to resolve this
diplomatically and there is still time to do so," he said, but added
that if diplomacy fails "all options are on the table."
latest comments about Iran's nuclear progress show that the gap may be
closing between the American and Israeli leaders over when Iran's
nuclear program is judged to be too much of a threat, says Mark
Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions and executive director of the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
now, we think it will take a little bit over a year for Iran to possess
a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don't want to cut it too close,"
Obama told Israel's TV Channel 2 on March 13. "What we're going to be
doing is to continue to engage internationally with Iran, understanding
we've had the toughest sanctions ever. If we can resolve this
diplomatically, that's a more lasting solution, but if not I continue to
keep all options on the table."
Obama's description of Iran's
nuclear progress left out any doubt on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which
were mentioned in a threat assessment delivered a day earlier by James
Clapper, the U.S. director of National Intelligence.
said that while Iran has "the scientific, technical and industrial
capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons," whether that decision
has been made is not clear. "The central issue is its political will to
do so," Clapper said.
The U.S. intelligence community assessment
is that Iran could not produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb
"before this activity is discovered," Clapper said.
Obama's apparent agreement that Iran is pursuing a bomb might be
significant, because it could signal that his thinking about Iran has
now moved closer to Netanyahu's thinking, Dubowitz says.
told delegates at the United Nations in September that Iran must be
stopped before it reaches a stockpile of enough medium grade uranium
that would allow it to produce enough higher grade uranium for a bomb
before Western intelligence agencies would know about it.
difference is whether the United States joins Israel by focusing on when
Iran obtains the ability to make nuclear weapons, or continues to base
the threat on whether Iran decides to make the nuclear weapon, Dubowitz
says. Israel says Iran should be stopped, militarily perhaps, before it
reaches the first step.
Obama has not commented overtly on that memorable "red line" of Netanyahu's.
Obama sticks to language he used in the Channel 2 interview, "that's a
signal the Americans and Israelis have come together," Dubowitz says.
"If he continues to focus on the political decision, that shows a
difference between the two leaders."
The issue could become
crucial as Iran resumes long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear
program with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China
and Germany. Iran wants a deal that allows them to keep a nuclear
program it says is for research and medical purposes, and that
recognizes Iran's right to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Some experts saw promise in the latest round of talks,
which ended Feb. 27 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In those talks, the six
nations offered to partially lift sanctions on Iran's economy by
allowing it to trade in gold and precious metals if Iran suspends
enrichment of medium-enriched uranium and safeguards that stockpile.
chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, responded positively, which was
"a step toward compromise by the Iranians," who had earlier insisted
that oil and banking sanctions be lifted immediately, says Michael
Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars, a think tank in Washington.
Dubowitz, however, says
advanced equipment that Iran is installing at its nuclear facilities
could make such an agreement obsolete. Iran is in the process of
installing thousands of new, more efficient centrifuges that the
multinational offer does not address, Dubowitz says.
point, they'll have so many centrifuges spinning they'll be able to
achieve undetectable breakout more quickly," he says. "The question is,
can you fashion a deal with Iran that puts strict limits on its
The Iranians have created the perception that their
stockpile is so valuable to them that they won't give it up without
extracting a major concession from the international community, such as
lifting sanctions, he says.
But the stockpile isn't that
important because they're building the capacity to enrich uranium to any
level in a short amount of time, Dubowitz says.
have so many centrifuges that they can produce enough weapons-grade
uranium in a week or two, between visits by United Nations inspectors,
"They're now closer and closer to that breakout capacity
where they can produce enough weapons grade uranium without our being
able to stop them."