President Barack Obama disclosed that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran continues to be a year or more away from building a nuclear weapon, an assessment that is at odds with Israel, which contends Tehran is on a faster course toward a bomb.
Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press, expressed optimism about the blossoming diplomacy between his administration and Iran's new president, but said the U.S. would not accept a “bad deal” on the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
The president spoke to the AP on Friday.
Obama has launched a diplomatic outreach to Iran, aimed at resolving the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program. Last week, he spoke by phone with President Hassan Rowhani, marking the first direct exchange between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.
“Rowhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world,” Obama said. “And so far he's been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through?”
But Obama said Rowhani is not Iran's only “decision-maker. He's not even the ultimate decision-maker,” a reference to the control wielded by Iran's supreme leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei said Saturday that some aspects of Rowhani's trip to New York last month were “not appropriate,” but reiterated his crucial support for the president's policy of outreach to the West.
The comments by Khamenei, summarized on his website, came after hard-liners criticized the 15-minute phone conversation between Rowhani and Obama.
Hard-liners, including commanders in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, have said the president went too far with the phone call in reaching out to the U.S.
But Rowhani's outreach has received broad support from Iranian legislators and it appears popular at a time when Iran is facing crippling economic sanctions due to the nuclear impasse.
Khamenei also said the U.S. was “untrustworthy.” He has previously said he's not opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve Iran's nuclear standoff with the West but is not optimistic.
Given Khamenei's broad influence, some countries, most notably Israel, have questioned whether Rowhani actually represents real change in Iran or just new packaging of old policies.
Obama also put distance between U.S. and Israeli assessments of when Iran might have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials have said Iran is just months away from being able to build a bomb, while Obama said Tehran was a year or more away.
But Obama said, “Our assessment continues to be a year or more away. And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services.”
The president used the same timetable in March, before traveling to Israel. The U.S. and Israel contend that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb, while Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
Obama: Iran ‘a year or more’ from nuclear weapon capability