- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Bush administration yesterday questioned Israel’s urgent warning on the advancement of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, saying the Islamic republic is not likely to have a nuclear bomb for at least five years.

The rare disclosure of an intelligence assessment on the record came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Vice President Dick Cheney that Iran’s illicit program had reached a “point of no return.”

The State Department yesterday agreed that there is no reason for Iran to be enriching uranium, which can be used to make a bomb, and that the program should be “permanently suspended.”

But Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, declined to share Mr. Sharon’s urgency.

“The intelligence community has used, in the past, estimates that said that Iran was not likely to acquire a nuclear weapon before the beginning of the next decade,” Mr. Boucher said. “That remains the case.”

He added that the United States is “looking for a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the issue.”

“But I don’t think there is any dispute that Iran should not have the capabilities — the programs that have been used and that can be used as cover for nuclear-weapons development,” he said.

During the Tuesday meeting, Mr. Sharon urged Mr. Cheney to pressure the Europeans to adopt a tougher stance in their negotiations with Tehran.

At the same time, European diplomats were quoted by wire reports as saying that French President Jacques Chirac has been pushing the European Union to consider letting Iran enrich uranium.

“What we are doing is continuing to support the Europeans in their efforts to get Iran to abandon their nuclear-weapon ambitions, and the president talked about the diplomatic efforts going on by the Europeans,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday.

Under pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran has temporarily suspended its uranium-enrichment program, but has vowed to restart it because it needs to produce more electricity.

Iran rejects the charge that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, insisting that its program is designed only for civilian purposes.

Mr. Boucher addressed another issue with Tehran yesterday, demanding an end to its interference in Lebanon.

“We do know that Iran has had a military and intelligence presence in Lebanon for many years, including through elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” he said.

A senior State Department official said that although there are only between 12 and 50 Revolutionary Guard members in Lebanon, the matter is “not purely a function of numbers.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Lebanon not to delay elections planned before the end of May.

She said yesterday’s “resignation of Prime Minister Karami presents an opportunity to move forward.”

Other officials said Omar Karami’s failure to form a Cabinet does not mean that such an achievement is impossible or that it should impede the political process.

“We expect the consultative process required to form a new Cabinet will take place immediately,” Miss Rice said.

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