By Saul Hudson
WASHINGTON - A senior U.S. official said on Thursday Iran has conceded to European powers it could build nuclear weapons in three years as Washington turned up the heat on Tehran to abandon what it says is a drive to acquire them.
But European diplomats, who have sought to engage Iran in negotiations on the issue, were skeptical of the U.S. assertion, which could help a U.S. drive to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
"Iran has told the EU three (Britain, Germany and France) that it could possess nuclear weapons within three years," U.S. Under Secretary of State John Bolton told Reuters. "The Iranian assertion gives the lie to the public contention that their nuclear program is entirely civil and peaceful in purpose."
At a conference earlier this week, the hawkish appointee of Republican President Bush, made a similar statement about Iran's assertions to the Europeans at talks last month. But on Thursday, he specified how soon Iran had said it could possess a weapon -- a detail that coincides with the earliest U.S. estimates for an Iranian bomb.
U.S. officials with access to intelligence estimates say Iran can achieve a bomb in three to five years.
The United States hopes that referring Iran to the Security Council could pressure the country to stop programs it believes would be a danger in the Middle East, notably to its close ally Israel.
European diplomats doubted Iran had made such a claim during last month's negotiations.
"Our reports of the meeting do not mention that such a statement was made," a European diplomat from one of the countries involved in the talks said.
The European Union three share information with the United States on their negotiations, although they have made public few details about talks they held last month, diplomats said.
In recent weeks, oil-rich Iran has intensified its standoff over its nuclear programs.
The Europeans won concessions from Iran last year. But Iran was angered when the U.N. nuclear watchdog issued a tough rebuke over cooperation with its inspectors in June.
And last month, it went back on an agreement with the Europeans and said it would resume work on centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
Bolton, who is skeptical talks with Iran will be successful, wants Tehran referred to the Security Council as early as next month during a meeting of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
"We do not believe that anyone will be dissuaded by these thinly veiled Iranian threats, made by Iran in an effort to avoid being reported to the U.N. Security Council," Bolton said.