Iran 'falls behind' in bid to build nuclear bomb

Senate testimony by General Petraeus appears to back President's approach

Iran's suspected drive to acquire nuclear weapons appears to have slipped back slightly, and Tehran is unlikely to have a bomb during 2010, America's top commander for the region told Congress yesterday.

The remarks of General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, seemed in part designed to back up the current stance of the Obama administration that – despite the acute anxieties of Israel and moderate Gulf states – there is still room for diplomatic and economic sanctions to persuade the Tehran regime to halt its uranium enrichment programme.

"It has, thankfully, slid to the right a bit and it is not this calendar year, I don't think," General Petraeus testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked when he thought Iran would have a nuclear weapon.

He was speaking against a backdrop of renewed domestic political tension in Iran, ahead of a traditional annual festival this week which has pagan, pre-Islamic origins, and which the opposition wants to turn into a protest against the clerical regime.

In response, the authorities have announced that six people convicted of "waging war against God" during the last round of demonstrations in December will be executed, and publicly warned the population not to take part in the so-called Feast of Fire.

Iran's domestic unrest is being closely followed in Washington, which is torn between a desire to encourage a protest movement which might complicate Tehran's efforts to get the bomb, and the fear that explicit intervention will only make it easier for the regime to rally the country against foreign interference, portraying the nuclear programme as a symbol of national independence.

Yesterday General Petraeus noted again that President Obama had stated that Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons: US policy was "very clear," he told lawmakers.

Indeed, like his predecessor George W Bush, Mr Obama has repeatedly refused to take the military option off the table, and General Petraeus acknowledged that the Pentagon was drawing up contingency plans for precisely such circumstances.

Even so, some analysts believe that Washington may be quietly shifting to a strategy of containment, in the calculation that sooner or later, whatever is done, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. This suspicion has been strengthened by recent statements by both Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon's most senior uniformed officer, playing down the effectiveness of military action. But General Petraeus declined to comment on what he termed a "big policy hypothetical."

Nor did he explain yesterday why he believed Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon might have hit some bumps. Last month, however, Dennis Blair, director of US national intelligence, said that Iran appeared to be experiencing "some problems" at its key enrichment facility in Natanz, where it was operating only about half of the installed 8,000 centrifuges. Even so, he said, Tehran was "technically capable" of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in "the next few years," if it chose to do so.

Turning to Iraq, where he was a key architect of President Bush's troop "surge" in 2007, General Petraeus indicated that the US may temporarily slow the current reduction of troop strength in the country.

Noting that the situation in Iraq remained fragile, despite declining violence and high turnout in the recent elections, he said the Pentagon was still adjusting details of the force reduction. But he insisted that President Obama's target of reducing total US forces from 97,000 now to 50,000 by the end of August would be met. Under current plans, all US combat forces will have left Iraq by the end of 2011.

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