Iran would need three to eight years to make a nuclear bomb, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog said in an interview published yesterday, and he warned against a rush to use force to curb Teheran's nuclear ambitions.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told France's Le Monde newspaper there was plenty of time for diplomacy, sanctions, dialogue and incentives to bear fruit.
US Vice-President Dick Cheney said on Sunday the world would not stand by and let Iran develop a nuclear weapon, and Washington has not ruled out an attack. Iran says its nuclear plans are peaceful and denies it wants to make an atomic bomb.
"I cannot judge their intentions, but supposing that Iran does intend to acquire a nuclear bomb, it would need between another three and eight years to succeed," ElBaradei told Le Monde. "All the intelligence services agree on that."
"I want to get people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat from tomorrow, and that we are faced right now with the issue of whether Iran should be bombed or allowed to have the bomb," the Nobel peace prize winner said.
"We are not at all in that situation. Iraq is a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it."
Separately, ElBaradei said he hoped to soon have information on an Israeli raid last month on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria, which has been shrouded in mystery.
Israel has confirmed it carried out an air strike on Syria on September 6 but has not described the target. Syria has said only that it was a building under construction.
ElBaradei said he had no information that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had been supplying nuclear know-how to Syria and noted the UN charter only permitted the use of force in the face of an imminent threat or with the prior approval of the world body.
Iran remains defiant
In a letter to France published yesterday, Iran said it would not abandon its right to nuclear technology despite the threat of more sanctions.
"Iran will not let its right to nuclear technology be suppressed … Using tools like the Security Council, economic sanctions and other threats cannot deprive our nation and our government for a moment from its decision," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki wrote to his French counterpart.
France is pushing for stronger European Union sanctions against Teheran, as well as pressing for further UN measures.
French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said in New York there was a strong meeting of minds between Paris and Washington on Iran and economic pressure would be brought to bear. "French policy in that regard has clearly strengthened," she said.
The West wants to impose further sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can make fuel for power plants or, if Iran wanted, material for warheads.
Major powers have agreed to delay a move against Iran until November to see if Teheran answers IAEA queries about its intentions. ElBaradei said it would not be a problem if those talks extended into December.
The powers are also awaiting the result of talks with EU negotiator Javier Solana, who is due to meet an Iranian delegation in Rome today that will include Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator sacked on Saturday, and his hardline replacement Saeed Jalili.
The new chief negotiator is a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Analysts say his appointment signals a shift to a more uncompromising line by Teheran.
Teheran's refusal to halt nuclear work has already prompted the UN Security Council to impose two sets of sanctions.