He said Tehran is "two years away" from becoming "a nuclear weapons state."
In an unusually public forum, the head of Britain's foreign intelligence agency, MI6, has forecast that Iran will likely achieve a nuclear weapons capability within two years, a British newspaper reported on Friday.
The Daily Telegraph quoted Sir John Sawers, once the ranking British diplomat on the Iranian nuclear issue and now head of the Secret Intelligence Service, as making the disclosure last week to a gathering of 100 high-ranking civil servants. The reported remarks play into a highly contentious debate over Iran's intentions and capabilities.
U.S. intelligence agencies have cited a 2007 assessment stating that Iran suspended research on nuclear weapons in 2003 and had not decided to take the final steps needed to build a bomb. But Britain and Israel, in particular, have interpreted the same data to mean that a decision has been made to move to a nuclear weapons capability. For its part, Iran has frequently said it has no intention to build such weapons.
Sawers was also said to have maintained that covert operations by British intelligence agents had prevented Iran from acquiring the technology as early as 2008. A British government official, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules, said Sawers had been "speaking off the record to civil servants at a leadership event and what he said has been said by others before."
According to the Daily Telegraph, the remarks were Sawers' first publicly reported assessment of Iran's nuclear ambitions since his appointment as head of MI6 in 2009. Iran, he said, was now "two years away" from becoming "a nuclear weapons state," the Daily Telegraph reported, and when it achieved that status, the United States and Israel would have to decide whether to strike.
"The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons, all the technologies they need," he said. "It's equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state."
Iran says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes, but reflecting the assessment that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, the United States and its allies have imposed a tightening vise of economic sanctions accompanying thus far inconclusive diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment.
Without efforts by British intelligence, Sawers was quoted as saying, "you'd have Iran as a nuclear weapons state in 2008 rather than still being two years away in 2012." He did not elaborate.