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Iran has enough material to make nuclear bomb: US admiral

Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said on Sunday, marking Washington's first such assessment.

world Updated: Mar 02, 2009 09:57 IST

Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said on Sunday, marking Washington's first such assessment.

"We think they do, quite frankly," Mullen told CNN when asked if Iran had enough nuclear material to manufacture an atomic bomb.

"And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I've believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world," said Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen's remarks came in the wake of a report by the UN nuclear watchdog that said Tehran had made major strides in its uranium enrichment work.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Tehran now has 1,010 kilograms (2,227 pounds) of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (LEU) from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz.

That "is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability," according to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran's nuclear program.

A breakout capability is defined as securing enough low-enriched uranium, used for nuclear fuel, to turn into highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for nuclear weapons.

While IAEA experts put the amount needed for an atomic bomb at about 1,700 kilograms (3,748 pounds) of LEU, some analysts believe that smaller quantities might be enough.

Iran denies its atomic work is designed to build a nuclear arsenal and says it wants to develop nuclear technology to generate electricity for a growing population.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that Natanz was not configured to produce HEU.

Round-the-clock camera surveillance, the presence of inspectors and the ability of UN inspectors to make unannounced inspections made it "practically impossible" for Iran switch from making low-enriched to high-enriched uranium, he said.

"The world would know within a second."

The United States and its European allies have previously expressed concern that Iran could soon have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon but Mullen's more definitive comments went a step further.

The White House declined to comment on Sunday.

But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates struck a more cautious note on Iran's nuclear project.

"I think that there has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? They're not close to a stockpile. They're not close to a weapon at this point.

"And so, there is some time," Gates told NBC's "Meet the Press."

He said diplomacy carried a greater chance of success now that oil prices had dropped, enhancing the effect of economic sanctions on Iran, which relies heavily on oil revenue.

"Our chances of being successful, it seems to me, are a lot better at 35 dollars or 40 dollars" than 140 dollars a barrel, the peak of oil prices last June, Gates said.

"Because there are economic costs to this program. They do have economic challenges at home."

Iran's first satellite launch and the announcement that it could start up its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr within months have heightened concerns in Western capitals.

European states are considering imposing new sanctions on individuals and institutions linked to Iran's nuclear efforts, diplomats in several capitals said Thursday.

At its spring meeting starting Monday, the IAEA's 35-member board of governor will take its first look at Iran's nuclear program since President Barack Obama took power and said the United States could engage in direct talks with Iran.

The IAEA's six year-old investigation into Iran's nuclear activities is deadlocked, with Tehran refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, despite repeated UN sanctions. It is also stonewalling questions on the possible military dimensions of past nuclear work.