WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has enough "wiggle room" to give sanctions time to work against Iran before turning to other ways to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, a top White House adviser said on Wednesday.
Jim Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, made clear that Washington would keep pressure on Iran over its nuclear program but that the administration believed it had breathing space before considering military action.
"We want to give these sanctions a good shot at working before we do anything else," Jones told CNN, referring to new U.N. measures in addition to those taken unilaterally by the U.S. government and European Union to punish Iran for its nuclear defiance.
Top Pentagon officials told Congress in April that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon in as little as a year but would probably need three to five years to assemble, test and deploy it.
The United States and other Western powers fear Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian electricity-generating program, a charge Tehran denies.
The clock is ticking in the nuclear standoff.
While backing Obama's two-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy, Israel, Iran's arch-foe, has left open the possibility of a military strike on Tehran's nuclear sites. Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear weapons power.
Echoing other top administration officials, Jones insisted there were signs that sanctions were beginning to take a toll on Iran and said its nuclear expertise may not have advanced as far as previously feared.
"We have indications, as the president said last week, that the sanctions are in fact causing them a great deal of difficulty, that the nuclear program is not quite as progressive as some might have thought a year ago," Jones said.
"We've done an awful lot of work to find out what our time frames are and what is the ... 'wiggle room' with regard to the international community," he said.
But Jones declined to specify how much time would be given for sanctions to work, saying: "There's general agreement within the international community as to what that is, and people are comfortable right now with where we are on that linear path."
Jones reiterated Obama's recent assertion that the door remained open to direct engagement with Tehran and urged it to return to international nuclear talks.
Asked whether Obama would be willing to accept Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's invitation to meet at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, Jones said the "P5+1" forum that groups the United States with China, Britain, Russia, Germany and France is the "right place" to start talks.
"As far as going as far as heads of state meeting, only time will tell," he said. "But they have to make those initial steps to show that they are sincere. There's no point in a theatrical meeting without any building block leading up to it."
(Editing by Paul Simao)
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