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Iran: Nuclear program is 'irreversible'

U.S. lawmakers say intelligence information is lacking
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned last week that the Iranian army would "cut off the hand of any aggressor."



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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iran's foreign ministry spokesman on Sunday declared that the country's controversial nuclear program is "irreversible."

"We are determined not to give up our rights to nuclear energy, and suspension of relevant activities is not on our agenda," said spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi. "The issue is irreversible."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to speak on Monday about his country's nuclear ambitions and other subjects to a group of international journalists, only the second time since taking office last August that the Iranian leader has allowed foreign journalists into a news conference. (Watch Iran defend its right to nuclear research -- 1:37)

Iran maintains its nuclear research is for a future civilian energy program, but the United States and several other countries contend that the work is a guise to hide its development of nuclear weapons.

Iran declared April 11 that it had produced enriched uranium in concentrations capable of running a nuclear power plant, defying the United Nations Security Council's call to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

The Security Council has given Iran until nearly the end of April to do so and asked International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to report back to it on April 28.

Asefi said Western nations should wait for the publication of that report before trying to exert any more pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear research.

IAEA officials have said they would press Iran about Ahmadinejad's assertion this month that Iran is "now under the process of research and testing" of P-2 uranium-enrichment centrifuge technology.

P-2 centrifuges, with their superstrong rotors, enrich uranium faster, and could help Iranian scientists construct a nuclear weapon much sooner than the P-1 centrifuges they have shown to international inspectors.

U.S. intelligence officials have estimated, based on the assumption that Iran has only P-1 centrifuges, that it is five to 10 years away from making a nuclear weapon.

But on Sunday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said "we really don't know" how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon.

"We've got a long way to go in rebuilding our intelligence community," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, told "Fox News Sunday."

"We don't have all of the information that we would like to have."

Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat and the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, concurred that "our intelligence is thin."

"This is not a time to be saber-rattling in our government, talking about the military option," Harman told Fox.

"Just the fact that the Iranian government is making a lot of noise doesn't prove their capability. Remember, the Iraqi government made a lot of noise, and they had nothing."

U.S. officials have said they are pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the standoff with Iran, though President Bush has consistently said that no option is off the table.

Reporters asked Bush last week if that included the possibility of a nuclear strike.

"All options are on the table," Bush replied. "We want to solve this issue diplomatically, and we're working hard to do so."

Bush earlier this month referred to media coverage as "wild speculation" after The New Yorker magazine reported that the administration was considering a tactical nuclear strike to take out Iran's atomic program.

Oil smashed through record highs last week, cruising past $75 a barrel, in part due to continued fears of supply disruptions in Iran. (Full storyexternal link)

U.S. to Russia: Freeze arms sales

The United States has urged Russia and other countries to stop the sale of arms and other sensitive technology to Iran in an effort to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

"It's time for countries to use their leverage against Iran," State Department Undersecretary Nicholas Burns said Friday. "We think it's very important that countries like Russia freeze any arms sales planned for Iran."

In recent weeks, the United States has stepped up its pressure on Moscow to stop its planned sale of surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

"We hope and we trust that that deal will not go forward," Burns said after returning from Moscow, where he met this week with officials from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to coordinate a diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran.

Senior officials from the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met Wednesday and failed to agree on imposing sanctions against Iran.

As part of what Burns said would be an intensified period of diplomacy on Iran, the group will meet again on May 2 in Paris.

The G-8 group of industrialized countries is also expected to focus on the Iran issue at its July summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, he said.

Robert Joseph, the State Department's top arms control official, said that Iran has "both feet on the accelerator" in its nuclear development.

He was referring to Ahmadinejad's claims of uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility in concentrations he said were capable of running a nuclear power plant -- a level far below that needed for a nuclear weapon.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to take up the issue next month. Last month, the council issued a presidential statement demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities within 30 days, an action Iran refused to consider.

The United States is looking for the Security Council to pass a resolution under the U.N. charter requiring Iran to comply with international law.

The Bush administration wants the council to impose sanctions against Iran, including a freezing of assets, a travel ban against members of the regime, and a tightening of export controls to slow the development of Iran's nuclear program.

The Bush administration faces stiff resistance from Russia and China, which oppose sanctions and hold veto power as permanent members of the Security Council.

But Burns said that in Moscow he found a growing "sense of urgency" among the international community over Iran's nuclear program and suggested a group of like-minded countries could work together to put the diplomatic and financial squeeze on Iran.

"There are a lot of countries that trade with Iran that have billion-dollar trade relationships, and they ought to begin to rethink those commercial trade relationships," he said.

CNN's Elise Labott and Aneesh Raman contributed to this report.

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