WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. intelligence official has told a congressional panel that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon within a year and in three years build one that could be deployed.
At an April 14 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, was asked how long it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear weapon if the regime decided to.
Burgess told the committee,"We're talking one year."
The new time frame was revealed on the same day that Iran announced it has produced its first significant batch of further-enriched uranium, in defiance of United Nations' demands.
Iran's state run ISNA news agency quoted the country's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, as saying the uranium had been enriched from around 3.5 percent to 20 percent purity -- the level needed to fuel a medical research reactor.
Twenty percent is well below the level of more than 90 percent needed to build a nuclear weapon, but the announcement supports U.S. concern that Iran is moving toward weapons-grade enrichment.
At the hearing, legislators questioned administration officials for more than two hours in an attempt to determine how close Iran is to building a nuclear weapon, whether it is likely to do so, and what the United States can do -- with or without the United Nations' help -- to prevent it.
The DIA's Burgess told the committee that as of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, in 2007, U.S. intelligence had not established Iran's intention to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. government has prepared a new, classified assessment of Iran's nuclear program but has not released it yet.
Administration officials would not discuss the most sensitive information they knew, reserving that for a closed session with lawmakers. And they steered discussion away from U.S. options for action other than support for the package of sanctions currently being prepared in the UN Security Council.
The Obama administration has made getting a new round of tough sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council its top diplomatic priority, and at the White House's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week, Obama said he wanted to see "bold" and "quick" action by the United Nations.
But with China and Russia, two key Security Council members with veto power, still not fully committed to punishing Tehran, senators asked the panel whether the United States would act alone, or with its willing allies, to impose sanction if the UN fails to.
U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns said Washington was seeking "the strongest possible sanctions resolution in the shortest possible time," and that it was the "strong preference" of U.S. allies in Europe to go through the UN.
"A new Security Council sanctions resolution is an important element of our strategy for intensifying pressure and we're going to do everything possible to try to achieve that, in -- as the president has said -- in a matter of the coming weeks, this spring," Burns said.
In response to a question from Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) on whether he thought it was likely that China and Russia would support "meaningful" sanctions, Burns said "yes," adding, "I think it is likely that we would be able to produce a Security Council resolution."
After pressing Burns twice more, and reminding him that he was on the record, the blunt-spoken McCain said he would be "very interested" to see if that prediction comes true, adding, "I see no justification for it."
Of Russia and China, McCain said, "They've been playing rope-a-dope with us now for over a year."
Last year the White House gave Iran until the end of December to comply with UN demands to prove beyond a doubt that its nuclear program is not aimed at developing weapons or face punishing sanctions. Tehran insists its enrichment activities are solely for civilian use.
More than three months after the deadline, Obama continues to signal that Tehran can still choose to comply with the UN and avoid sanctions.
The diplomatic option is still on the table, but as Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) pointed out, the military option is, too. Lieberman told the panel that if sanctions don't succeed in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the United States "[has] to be prepared to use military force."
He asked the DIA's Burgess about his statement to the committee that Iran, with outside help, could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. shores.
"The Iranians continue...to develop a capability in their missile system and they are improving not only their range but their accuracy, and they have certain capabilities," Burgess replied. "If others decide to assist them, they can leapfrog that technology, as they have given indications in some testing that is of concern to us."
That testimony added weight to McCain's opening remarks, in which he said that there was no doubt that Iran would acquire a nuclear bomb unless the United States moved now to stop it.
"The question of whether Iran becomes a nuclear weapons power is less a question of capabilities than it is a test of wills -- both Iran's and certainly ours," McCain said, comparing the White House strategy of threatening Tehran with sanctions and then letting deadlines pass without action to pointing a loaded gun "but failing to pull the trigger."
"Make no mistake," the senator added, "If Iran achieves a nuclear weapons capability it will not be because we couldn't stop it, but because we chose not to stop it."