Obama says Iran a year or more from nuclear weapon capability


WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - The United States believesIran is a year or a more away from being able to produce anuclear weapon, President Barack Obama said in an interview withthe Associated Press released on Saturday, although he describedthe estimate as "conservative."

"Our assessment continues to be a year or more away, and infact, actually our estimate is probably more conservative thanthe estimates of Israeli intelligence services," Obama said inreply to a question about the U.S. intelligence assessment ofIran's ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Obama has directed U.S. officials to try to work out anagreement with Iran to allay international concerns about itsnuclear program, an opportunity he has said is worth exploringafter the election of the relatively moderate Iranian PresidentHassan Rouhani.

The United States, Israel and other countries accuse Iran ofusing its nuclear program to try to develop the capability toproduce weapons. Iran says the program is for peaceful energypurposes only.

Obama and Rouhani spoke by telephone a week ago, thehighest-level contact between the two countries in threedecades.

"I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that hecan improve relations with the rest of the world," Obama said inthe AP interview.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissedRouhani's overtures as a ruse. Israel has warned that newIranian uranium centrifuges could give Tehran the ability torapidly produce bomb fuel.

"If Iran decides to complete uranium enrichment, it would beable to do so within a few weeks from the moment of decision,"an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama seeeye-to-eye on the need to prevent Iran obtaining nuclearweapons," the official said.

Obama said he understands why Israel is skeptical aboutIran's diplomatic overtures, but said he wants to test whetherRouhani can "follow through."

"The way the Iranian system works, he's not the onlydecision maker. He's not even the ultimate decision maker,"Obama said.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said onSaturday he supported Rouhani's diplomatic opening at the U.N.General Assembly last week.

But Khamenei, who would make final decisions on any nucleardeal, said that some of what occurred at the U.N. was "notproper" - a hint at some disagreement over Rouhani's phoneconversation with Obama.

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