Netanyahu’s enrichment warning not swaying U.S., says Pentagon policy chief

Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's warning this week that Iran would have nearly enough bomb-grade uranium to build a nuclear weapon in six months does not change the U.S. assessment of the need for military action.

Miller, under secretary of defense for policy, in an exclusive interview with the FP National Security channel on Wednesday, said that enrichment was just one factor in the U.S. calculation of how long it would take for Iran to have a working nuclear bomb.

"The timeline, from our perspective, includes the question of how long it takes to enrich, and then how long it would take to go from a certain level of enrichment to weapons grade, and other steps in that process," Miller said. "And so, as we look at that potential timeline we certainly believe, as I said, that we have time."

On Sunday, as part of a blitz of U.S. media appearances, Netanyahu told CNN, "They're moving very rapidly, completing the enrichment of the uranium they need to produce a nuclear bomb. In six months or so they'll be 90 percent of the way there. I think it's important to place a red line before Iran."

But two days earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview that U.S. and other intelligence agencies, including Israel's, agree that despite Iran's enrichment activities, Iranian leaders have not made the decision to pursue a bomb.

Miller would not distinguish which was the bigger threat, Iran reaching the capability for a potential bomb -- via enrichment -- or making the decision to try to build one.

"What intelligence basically tells us now is that they have not made that decision," Panetta said. "And that while they continue to do enrichment, they have not made a decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon. And I have to tell you that I think the intelligence community, whether it's Israeli intelligence or United States intelligence, has pretty much the same view."

U.S. intelligence officials believe they have one year to 18 months from that decision-point before Iran has bomb -- implying the Pentagon (or anyone else) has that long to attempt a preventive strike.

Netanyahu, however, cautioned against relying too much on U.S. or Israeli intelligence forecasts: "We've also had our failures, both of us. You know, you've just marked 9/11. That wasn't seen. None of us, neither Israel or the United States, saw Iran building this massive nuclear bunker under a mountain. For two years they proceed without our knowledge. So I think the one thing we do know is what they're doing right now. We know that they're enriching this material. We know that in the six, seven months they'll have got to covered 90 percent of the way for an atomic bomb material. And I think that we should count on the things that we do know in setting the red line."

Miller also threw his support behind the sanctions, which he argued are having adverse effects in Iran. "It may take some time before the Supreme Leader, before Iran makes the calculation," he said, of whether to give up its nuclear program or pursue the bomb.

On Wednesday, Miller toed the Obama administration line: "As we look at the intelligence, we believe that we have time and space to accomplish that, and the timeline that Secretary Panetta talked about is precisely right." 

This week, Fereydoun Abbasi, chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, reportedly said Iran does not intend to enrich uranium beyond 20 percent, to the degree that would be required to build a bomb.  Abbasi said the limited stocks of uranium Iran has enriched to 20 percent were for radiological medicinal purposes.


Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images