Returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dropped some jolting news.
Asked by CBS's Scott Pelley if Iran could have a nuclear weapon in 2012, Panetta replied: "It would probably be about a year before they could do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is that if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel."
Panetta was saying the mullahs are a year or less away from an atom bomb, and if they have a hidden site for enriching uranium to weapons grade, they may be even closer.
"That is a red line for us," Panetta added. "If we get intelligence they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to deal with it."
Panetta is raising the specter of pre-emptive war.
When Pelley's report hit, however, the Pentagon immediately began to walk the cat back.
"The secretary was clear that we have no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon," said Pentagon press secretary George Little. "He (Panetta) didn't say that Iran would, in fact, have a nuclear weapon in 2012."
Little added that U.N. inspectors remain in Iran and have access to its uranium stockpile, and should Iran attempt a "breakout" by diverting low-enriched uranium to a hidden facility to convert it to weapons grade, U.N. inspectors would instantly detect the diversion.
"We would retain sufficient time under any such scenario to take appropriate action," said Little.
In short, the Pentagon does not believe Iran has made a decision to build atomic weapons, and the department is confident that, should it do so, the United States would have ample warning.
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