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Iran 2 years from bomb capability, British spymaster

In an unusually public forum, the head of Britain's foreign intelligence agency, MI6, has forecast that Iran would likely 10___images_images_37.jpgachieve a nuclear weapons capability within two years, a British newspaper reported Friday.


The newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, quoted Sir John Sawers, once the ranking British diplomat on the Iranian nuclear issue and now head of the Secret Intelligence Service, as making the disclosure last week to a gathering of around 100 high-ranking civil servants.

The reported remarks play into a highly contentious debate over Iran's intentions and capabilities, in which estimates have varied widely.

U.S. intelligence agencies have cited a 2007 assessment stating that Iran, in fact, suspended research on nuclear weapons technology in 2003 and had not decided to take the final steps needed to build a bomb.

But Britain and Israel, in particular, have interpreted the same data to mean that a decision has been made to move to a nuclear weapons capability. For its part, Iran has frequently said it has no intention to build such weapons.

Sawers was also said to have maintained that covert operations by British intelligence agents had prevented Iran from acquiring the technology as early as 2008. A British government official, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules, said Sawers had been “speaking off the record to civil servants at a leadership event, and what he said has been said by others before.”

According to the Daily Telegraph, the remarks were Sawers' first publicly reported assessment of Iran's nuclear ambitions since his appointment as head of MI6 in 2009. Iran, he said, was now “two years away” from becoming a “a nuclear weapons state,” the Daily Telegraph reported, and when it achieved that status, the United States and Israel would have to decide whether to strike.

“The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons; all the technologies they need,” he said. “It's equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state.”

Iran says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes but, reflecting the assessment that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, the United States and its allies have imposed a tightening vise of economic sanctions, the latest Thursday, accompanying thus far inconclusive diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment.

“I think it will be very tough for any prime minister of Israel or president of the United States to accept a nuclear-armed Iran,” Sawers said.

Without previous efforts by British intelligence, he was quoted as saying, “you'd have Iran as a nuclear weapons state in 2008 rather than still being two years away in 2012.”

In recent years, several Iranian scientists have been assassinated on the streets of Tehran and a computer virus called Stuxnet has disrupted computer systems at nuclear facilities in Iran. Tehran has accused the U.S., Israeli and British secret services of conducting covert operations against it.

Sawers said MI6 has “run a series of operations to ensure that the sanctions introduced internationally are implemented, and that we do everything we can within the Middle East to slow down these remaining problems.”

Earlier this month, low-level talks between Iran and the group of big powers over the Iranian nuclear program ended early with both sides saying the deputies of their top negotiators would meet at a later date. Their announcement gave no hint of progress but nonetheless suggested that neither side was ready to declare the effort a failure.

The talks, in Istanbul, were part of a series of negotiations this year and were held against a backdrop of increasingly bellicose oratory by Iran and the United States because of the nuclear impasse, which has started to raise tensions again in the Middle East.

Iran has renewed a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to intensified U.S. and European sanctions meant to paralyze the Iranian oil industry as a pressure tactic in the nuclear talks. Iran has also said the new sanctions will have no effect on its resolve to prevail in the nuclear dispute.

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