Pentagon: US lacks knowledge to gauge Iran's nuke program

Washington lacks the kind of visibility inside the Iranian regime required to know for sure whether Tehran has shifted its nuclear-arms program into high gear, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told “60 Minutes” aboard his military plane on Saturday that if Tehran makes a series of decisions, U.S. officials think the defiant Middle Eastern nation could field a nuclear weapon by the end of next year.

Asked about those comments on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesmen sought to both clarify and reiterate the boss’s comments.

Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Panetta’s comments should not be read to say Iran will definitely field a nuclear weapon in 2012. Rather, the defense chief said if Tehran makes several decisions — including to begin enriching uranium — it is possible Iran might have some number of the world’s deadliest weapons next year, Little said.

But based on the “best information” available to American officials, “we don’t know” whether Iran’s regime has made one of the decisions that would be necessary to put its arms program on a fast track, Little said.

Capt. John Kirby, another senior Pentagon spokesman, told reporters during the same briefing that because of that lack of visibility into Iran’s nuclear efforts, it is unclear whether Washington “would have time to respond” before Tehran produces such a weapon.

But U.S. officials are keeping a keen eye out for clues, such as Tehran expelling United Nations weapons inspectors, Kirby said.

Panetta bluntly told “60 Minutes” a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable” to Washington — and Israel.

“The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” Panetta said. “That’s a red line for us and that’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it, we will deal with it.”

Kirby told reporters Wednesday that Washington and its allies are moving down a “dual track” of diplomatic and political pressure in an attempt to force Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions. He said a military option should be “the last option.”

But during his chat with the television news magazine, the Defense secretary made clear that if the U.S. uses its military to take out or cripple the nuclear program, he is confident such an operation would be successful.

“If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” Panetta said in the interview, posted online.

Panetta’s comments were the latest example of muscular rhetoric to come from senior American officials and lawmakers since a November International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that concluded Tehran is closer than ever to having a nuclear weapon.

That raised eyebrows across the world, largely because a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment had stated that Iran had frozen its arms program.

Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have, since November, suggested it is time for the United States to consider using military force to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities — or assist Israel in doing so.

Other lawmakers have endorsed the Obama administration’s approach of working with allies in the Middle East and across the globe to slap increasingly harsh sanctions on Tehran, while squeezing Iran diplomatically.

The Pentagon spokesman pointed out that the latest economic sanctions the Obama administration pushed for have had an effect, citing comments this week by a top Iranian economic official.