Panetta: Iran could have nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles in 2-3 years

Iran could build and set off a nuclear weapon within two to three years if it decided to pursue one, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a television interview aired Sunday.

“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 during a profile on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Tensions with Iran have mounted in recent months over Tehran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz and the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist. Iran has said its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

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Panetta, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency for two-and-a-half years before heading to the Pentagon, reiterated the Obama administration’s position that it would do everything it could to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. “If they proceed and we get intelligence that they're proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it,” he said. Asked if that meant a possible military strike, he repeated a line oft-used by President Obama: “There are no options that are off the table.”

Panetta reflected on the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in the interview, and said he believes government authorities in Pakistan knew about the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader. “My personal view is that somebody somewhere probably had that knowledge,” said Panetta.

He acknowledged that he had to “stop and think” in response to a question about how many “shooting wars” the U.S. was currently engaged. “I'll have to stop and think about that, because you know, obviously we're going after al Qaeda, wherever they're at,” he replied. “And clearly, we're, we're confronting al Qaeda in, in Pakistan. We're confronting the nodes of al Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa.” 

The secretary has been charged with reducing the Pentagon's budget by $450 billion over a decade because of spending cuts authorized by Congress. He said he would try to do so without making "the mistakes of the past." Republicans criticized President Clinton for slashing the military too much during the 1990s as part of a "peace dividend" after the end of the Cold War. "We'll have to make some very tough decisions about how we do this," Panetta said. "The last thing I want to do is to make the mistakes of the past. We still have to protect the best military in the world. We still have to have a military that protects us against a lot of threats that are out there, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, problem of cyber attacks, rising powers like China."