A former U.S. military commander warned on Wednesday that a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would take weeks to execute, and would likely only delay Iran's development of nuclear weapons by a few years rather than preventing Tehran from obtaining nuclear capability, Agence France-Presse has reported.
Admiral William Fallon, the former head of the U.S. Central Command (which covers the Middle East) said that Iran was a big concern for the U.S. and for Israel, but voiced hope that the nuclear issue could be resolved through diplomatic efforts.
"If the U.S. were to put a full-fledged strike campaign in there, that would probably take several weeks, it could put this program back for several years," AFP quoted Fallon as saying at the American Security Project.
Iran's suspected nuclear facilities are not a "pinpoint target," but are instead dispersed and largely underground, he said.
"The bottom line is, it's not going to be a one-time shot. It's not going to be like '81 or even 2007," Fallon said, referring to reported Israeli strikes on an Iraqi nuclear reactor and Syrian nuclear facility respectively. According to Fallon, bombing Iran's current facilities would take weeks.
Meanwhile, senior U.N. nuclear inspectors continued talks with Iran for a second day on Thursday, hoping to reach a long-sought agreement to unblock an investigation into suspected weapons research in the Islamic state.
It was not clear whether the extension of the meeting in Tehran meant that headway had been made toward nailing down a framework deal giving the U.N. nuclear watchdog access to sites, officials and documents for its long-stalled inquiry.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's first priority was to visit the Parchin military base southeast of Tehran, where it suspected explosives tests relevant for production of nuclear weapons that may have taken place, perhaps a decade ago, accusations that Tehran has denied.
Iran has denied Western accusations that it is seeking to develop a weapons capability, saying its nuclear program is aimed only at power generation.
The Vienna-based IAEA and Iran separately announced the continuation of their discussions that began on Wednesday. They gave no details.
The IAEA, whose mission is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, has been trying for a year to negotiate a so-called structured approach with Tehran on how to conduct the investigation.
"The continuation of the discussions ... has been planned for Thursday," the official IRNA news agency quoted a statement issued by Iran's supreme national security council as saying.
The Iranian report added, without giving details: "The IAEA negotiating team which arrived in Tehran on Tuesday night, held several rounds (of talks) with the Iranian team today."
In Vienna, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said: "The talks will continue on Thursday."
World powers were monitoring the IAEA-Iran talks for any signs as to whether Tehran, facing intensifying sanctions pressure, may be prepared to finally start tackling mounting international concerns about its nuclear activity.
The six powers — the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain — and Iran may resume their separate negotiations later in January to try to reach a broader diplomatic settlement. They last met in June.
After their previous meeting, in mid-December, both Iran and the IAEA said progress was made and the U.N. agency said it expected to finalize the deal in this week's talks. But Western diplomats later said some key sticking points remained.
Western diplomats have said that Iran has worked for the past year to remove any incriminating evidence from Parchin, but IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said late last year a visit would still be useful.
Before leaving Vienna, IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts said his team was ready to visit Parchin immediately if access were granted.
Tehran said a framework accord with the IAEA should be reached before any visit to Parchin is allowed. It said the site is a conventional military facility and has dismissed accusations of ongoing "sanitization" there.
Western diplomats voiced skepticism in the run-up to Wednesday's talks that a breakthrough was in the offing. Even if there were a deal, they said, it would be unclear how it would be implemented in practice.
But analysts and diplomats still saw a window of opportunity for world powers to make a renewed diplomatic push to find an overall negotiated solution to the dispute after U.S. President Barack Obama won re-election in November.
The six powers wanted Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment program and cooperate fully with the IAEA. Iran wanted the West to first lift the sanctions that were hurting its economy.