WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said the US has a “very good estimate” of when Iran could complete work on a nuclear weapon, but cautioned on Monday that there are still many unanswered questions about Tehran’s inner workings.
“Do we know all of the dynamics inside of Iran? Absolutely not,” Obama said. “Iran itself is a lot more divided now than it was. Knowing who is making decisions at any given time inside of Iran is tough.”
Obama said that while he believes the standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme can still be resolved through diplomacy, the US has done extensive planning on a range of options.
“We are prepared to exercise these options should they arise,” Obama said during an interview with NBC that aired on the Today show.
On Syria, where human rights groups say government forces have killed hundreds of people over the last few days in an effort to contain an uprising against President Bashar Assad, Obama said it is important to resolve the conflict there without outside military intervention.
Obama said a negotiated solution in Syria is possible and said the US has been “relentless” in demanding that Assad leave power.
Obama’s comments come amid increased tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere over the prospect that Israel, a key US ally, could soon launch a unilateral strike against Iran.
Fearing that such a step could trigger a broader war and disrupt the international economy, the US and other western nations are scrambling to try to persuade Israel against a strike.
On Sunday, Obama said the US was working in “lockstep” with Israel and did not believe Israel has decided whether to attack Iran, and said he hopes the standoff can be resolved diplomatically.
“I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” Obama said during an interview with NBC.
Iran insists its nuclear pursuits are for peaceful civilian purposes, not a bomb.
Iran’s regime says it wants to extinguish the Jewish state, and the West accuses it of assembling the material and know-how to build a nuclear bomb.
Just last week, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta would not dispute a report that he believes Israel may attack Iran this spring in an attempt to set back its nuclear programme.
Obama refused to say whether the United States would get notice from Israel before any potential strike on Iran.
“I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had,” Obama said, adding, “We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this – hopefully diplomatically.”
The United States is leading that persuasion initiative, even though Washington largely has concluded that outside argument will have little effect on Israeli decision-making.
“Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us,” Obama said. “It could have a big effect on oil prices. We’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran.”
As for the danger of retaliation by Iran against the United States, Obama said, “We don’t see any evidence that they have those intentions or capabilities right now.”