Obama: Iran a year away from nuclear weapon

President Obama speaks at the Organizing for Action dinner in Washington March 13, 2013.
AP Photo

JERUSALEM Iran is about a year away from developing a nuclear weapon and the United States remains committed to doing everything in its power to prevent that from happening, President Obama said in an exclusive interview aired Thursday on Israeli TV.

Just days before he is to arrive in Israel for his first presidential visit, Mr. Obama told Israel's Channel 2 TV that he still prefers diplomacy over force, but that a nuclear Iran is a "red line" and all options remain on the table to stop it.

"Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don't want to cut it too close," he said. "So when I'm consulting with Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) as I have over the last several years on this issue, my message to him will be the same as before: 'If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution. But if not I continue to keep all options on the table.'"

The timeline for action against Iran has been one of the most fraught disputes in an already tense relationship between Mr. Obama and Netanyahu. Israel has repeatedly threatened to act militarily should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb, while the U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to run their course.

In January 2012, in an interview broadcast on CBS' "60 Minutes," then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave "CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley a similar answer to Mr. Obama's.

"The consensus is that, if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon," Panetta said.

Last September, at the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, Netanyahu warned that Iran's work to build a nuclear bomb would be irreversible by next summer.

As CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported, that was significant because Netanyahu had never put a time frame on it before.

"A red line should be drawn right here," Netanyahu said, literally drawing a red line on a bomb diagram. "Before, before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb."

As Panetta told "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell that same month, the U.S. had a different red line.

"When they make the decision to go ahead and build a nuclear weapon," said Panetta, "that, for us, is a red line."

The American president nonetheless took a stern tone toward Iran in the half-hour long interview.

"What I have also said is that there is a window, not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically and it is in all of our interests" to do this, he said. "They (Iran) are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community ... I do think they are recognizing that there is a severe cost to continue on the path they are on and that there is another door open."

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian denials of the Holocaust, its calls for Israel's destruction, its development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state and its support for hostile Arab militant groups. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and designed to produce energy and medical isotopes, a claim that Israel and many Western countries reject.

Mr. Obama said that a nuclear Iran would also be "dangerous for the world. It would be dangerous for U.S. national security interests."

In the interview, Mr. Obama also spoke about his relationship with Netanyahu — claiming it is not as tense as reported — and encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks. He also said he had no immediate plans to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, whom Israel has been pressuring to set free after 28 years in prison for spying for them.

Mr. Obama arrives in Israel Wednesday for a three-day visit that is seen primarily as a means to convey the closeness of the U.S.-Israel alliance.