WASHINGTON — Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program is nearing a "dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity," and the country may have enough low-enriched uranium that, if it's enriched further, could produce one nuclear weapon, a top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.
"We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear option," U.S. ambassador Glyn Davies said in a speech to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The sharpest warning to date by an Obama administration official, it underscored the challenge that Iran poses for President Barack Obama.
Obama is trying to persuade Iran to join international talks on its nuclear program, and he's asked for a response from Tehran by month's end. Simultaneously, the United States is trying to gather support for tougher economic sanctions if Iran refuses to suspend its nuclear work.
Iran Wednesday handed what it said was a package of diplomatic proposals to envoys representing the six nations dealing with Iran's nuclear file — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S.
U.S. and European diplomats said they were reviewing the Iranian proposals and declined to discuss details. There was no indication, however, that the proposals differed from past Iranian offers, which have suggested general, wide-ranging talks without agreeing to concrete negotiations over its nuclear program.
Iran says it's enriching uranium to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors.
The United States and leading European countries, pointing to Iran's past deceptions about its nuclear development and refusal to allow full IAEA inspections, say the Islamic Republic is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.
The six nations offered Iran face-to-face talks in April, an offer Davies reiterated Wednesday.
After its disputed June elections, however, Iran is wracked by the worst unrest in three decades, leaving its leadership fractured and its willingness to engage with the West uncertain.
It was unclear what, if any, fresh intelligence data underlies Davies' remarks to the IAEA, a U.N. body that tries to ensure that nuclear technology is used only for civilian purposes.
An IAEA report earlier this year suggested that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium, in theory, to build a nuclear weapon. To reach that goal, however, Iran would have to take the significant technological step of converting it into the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear fission.
Beyond that, to become a nuclear power, Iran would have to miniaturize the device in order to place it atop a ballistic missile or other delivery system.
A November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, representing the judgment of all U.S. intelligence agencies, said that Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons design and related covert activities in 2003. Iran, it also said, "at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
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