THE West should assume that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2012 and "act in accordance" with that timetable, Britain's Defence Secretary said yesterday.
In the House of Commons, Dr Liam Fox was asked about the assessment of Meir Dagan, the former Israeli intelligence chief, that the Islamic republic will be unable to develop a working nuclear weapon until 2015.
Dr Fox, a hawk who has repeatedly raised concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, told MPs that he thought Mr Dagan's assessment could be too optimistic.
Instead, the West should plan on the basis that Tehran was much closer to developing a working nuclear weapon, he said.
"We know from previous experience, not least from what happened in North Korea, that the international community can be caught out, assuming that things are more rosy than they are," Dr Fox said. "We should therefore be entirely clear that it is entirely possible that Iran may be on the 2012 end of that spectrum, and act in accordance with that warning."
Dr Fox's suggested timetable for the Iranian nuclear programme is in line with that set out last year by Leon Panetta, head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The pessimistic British analysis comes days after international talks in Turkey on the Iranian programme once again failed to make significant progress. Along with America, Russia, China, France and Germany, Britain is part of the P5+1 group negotiating with Iran over its nuclear technology, trying to ensure that Tehran does not develop nuclear weapons.
A stalemate in talks in Istanbul last month drew renewed warnings from Western diplomats that military action may be taken against Iran's nuclear sites.
Documents revealed last year by the WikiLeaks website showed that leaders of Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi have urged Washington to consider a military strike on Iran's nuclear programme.
Dr Fox said that Britain did not believe the Iranian regime had yet provided full information about its nuclear work.
"We share the very serious concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has not adequately explained evidence of possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme." (© Daily Telegraph, London)