CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC's This Week that Iran probably has enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons, but that it would probably take it two years to build the bombs. Panetta also expressed doubts that recent U.N. sanctions will stop Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, U.S. Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen is meeting his Israeli counterpart IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi for the 15th time in three years on Sunday, an extraordinary reversal in the pattern of top consultations following 10 years without direct discussions.
The unscheduled visit by Mullen in Israel was described by the IDF as a “brief professional visit,” but it will be long enough to include discussions with five top IDF officers, including the head of the navy and of military intelligence.
The United States formerly has ignored the Iranian nuclear threat, angering Israel with its assessment, disclosed in late 2007, that American intelligence had concluded that Iran had suspended its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
Events in the Islamic Republic since then have thoroughly disproved the conclusion, and the prospect of a military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear sites, possibly with the approval or even participation of the United States, has been raised from time to time. U.S. President Barack Obama has consistently opted for diplomacy and sanctions against Iran while Tehran continues to produce enriched uranium, a key element for a nuclear weapon.
Most estimates are that Iran will be able to manufacture such a weapon within a year but will not have the capacity to atttack Israel with a nuclear warhead for three years. However, fears remain that Iran could transfer a nuclear weapon, in the form of a “dirty bomb” or some other means, to terrorist groups such as Hizbullah, based in Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbor.
Following previous meetings with Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, Mullen has stated that there is a “shared recognition that there remains a potential for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and to threaten its neighbors.”
Mullen’s visit on Sunday, his fourth in Israel, follows a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The inclusion of the head of the Israeli navy in Sunday’s discussions indicates they will include on their agenda the flotilla clash on May 31 and current threats to break Israel’s control of the Gaza coast. The navy also may be involved in what were reported last week as routine maneuvers in which 11 U.S. warships sailed through the Suez Canal under extraordinary Egyptian army protection. One Israeli ship reportedly joined the armada.