Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said on Sunday, marking the first time the United States has made such an assessment.
"We think they do, quite frankly," Mullen told CNN when asked if Iran had enough nuclear material to manufacture an atomic bomb. "And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I've believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world," said Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While the United States and European allies have expressed concern previously that Iran could soon have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon, Mullen's more definitive comments went a step further.
The admiral's remarks came in the wake of a report by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that said Tehran had made strides in its uranium enrichment work. Some analysts have said Iran may soon have sufficient material to make a nuclear bomb.
According to the IAEA, Tehran now has 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz. That "is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability," according to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran's nuclear program.
A breakout capability is when there is sufficient low-enriched uranium, which is used for nuclear fuel, to turn into highly-enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. Iran denies its atomic work is designed to build a nuclear arsenal and says it wants to develop nuclear technology to generate electricity for a growing population.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates meanwhile struck a more cautious note on Iran's nuclear project in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC television. "I think that there has been a continuing focus on how do you get the Iranians to walk away from a nuclear weapons program? They're not close to a stockpile. They're not close to a weapon at this point. "And so, there is some time," Gates said.
He said diplomacy carried a greater chance of success now that oil prices had dropped, enhancing the effect of economic sanctions on Iran - which relies heavily on oil revenue.
"Our chances of being successful, it seems to me, are a lot better at 35 dollars or 40 dollars" than 140 dollars a barrel, Gates said. "Because there are economic costs to this program. They do have economic challenges at home."
On Thursday, the United States ambassador to the United Nations said that the Obama administration would seek to end “Iran's nuclear ambition and its support for terrorism” - comments that drew an immediate rebuke from Iran's UN envoy.
Ambassador Mohammad Khazee said Iran has never and will never try to acquire nuclear weapons and dismissed U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice's allegation that Iran engages in terrorism as baseless and absurd.
Rice brought up Iran at an open meeting of the UN Security Council on Iraq, saying the long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq and the reduction of the U.S. military presence in the country had to be understood in a larger, regional context that included Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran.