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U.S. military ponders Iran’s nuclear plans

Mon., March 2, 2009

WASHINGTON – The nation’s top military officer said Sunday that Iran has enough nuclear material to make a bomb, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the country was not close to building such a weapon.

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program that he believed Iran had enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

“We think they do, quite frankly,” said Mullen, who reiterated the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. “Iran having nuclear weapons, I’ve believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome – for the region and for the world.”

Gates, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” agreed that deterring Iran from making a bomb was a top U.S. priority. But he said a diplomatic solution remained possible.

“They are not close to a stockpile; they are not close to a weapon at this point,” Gates said. “So there is some time.”

Mullen commented in response to a question about a recent report by the U.N.’s nuclear monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency found that Iran had built up its supplies of enriched uranium to slightly more than a ton, about 33 percent more than it previously had stated it had stockpiled. It takes about a ton of enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.

Although a November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran had stopped developing a nuclear weapon, senior U.S. officials now discount that conclusion. Since taking office, President Barack Obama and other top administration officials repeatedly have said that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Iran says the enrichment program is meant solely for civilian energy purposes.

Gates said it is not clear whether the United Nations would be willing to increase sanctions imposed on Iran to try to persuade it to quell nuclear activities. But he also noted that the U.S. would show Iran an “open door” – an apparent allusion to Obama’s statements during the presidential campaign that he would engage Iran in talks. With lower oil prices reducing Iran’s leverage, the prospects for increasing pressure have improved, Gates said.

“There has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear program,” Gates said.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear and missile technology is a critical issue for the U.S., Israel and NATO. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. pushed for a Eastern European missile-defense system to protect against Iranian rockets. In the past, Obama and some key advisers have been skeptical of missile defense; military officials are wondering if the new administration will slow down or cut back the program.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mullen said he expected the Obama administration to conduct a review of missile defense. In coming days, the U.S. missile-defense system potentially could face a real-world test. North Korea has said it plans a test of its longest-range missile, believed to be capable of reaching Alaska.

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