WASHINGTON - Iran should be attacked before it develops nuclear weapons, America's former ambassador to the United Nations said yesterday.
John Bolton, who still has close links to the Bush administration, told The Daily Telegraph that the European Union had to "get more serious" about Iran and recognise that its diplomatic attempts to halt Iran's enrichment programme had failed.
Iran has "clearly mastered the enrichment technology now...they're not stopping, they're making progress and our time is limited", he said. Economic sanctions "with pain" had to be the next step, followed by attempting to overthrow the theocratic regime and, ultimately, military action to destroy nuclear sites.
Mr Bolton's stark warning appeared to be borne out yesterday by leaks about an inspection by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iran's main nuclear installation at Natanz on Sunday.
The experts found that Iran's scientists were operating 1,312 centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium. If Iran can install 3,000, it will need about one year to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one nuclear bomb.
Experts had judged that Iran would need perhaps two years to master the technical feat of enriching uranium using centrifuges - and then another two years to produce enough material to build a weapon.
But the IAEA found that Iran has already managed to enrich uranium to the four per cent purity needed for power stations. Weapons-grade uranium must reach a threshold of 84 per cent purity.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA's head, said the West's goal of halting the enrichment programme had been "overtaken by events". Iran had probably mastered this process and "the focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production".
Mr Bolton said: "It's been conclusively proven Iran is not going to be talked out of its nuclear programme. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure.
"If we can't get enough other countries to come along with us to do that, then we've got to go with regime change by bolstering opposition groups and the like, because that's the circumstance most likely for an Iranian government to decide that it's safer not to pursue nuclear weapons than to continue to do so. And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force."
President George W Bush privately refers to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has pledged to wipe Israel "off the map", as a 21st Century Adolf Hitler and Mr Bolton, who remains a close ally of Vice President Dick Cheney, said the Iranian leader presented a similar threat.
"If the choice is them continuing [towards a nuclear bomb] or the use of force, I think you're at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don't stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear programme would be in Iran's hands, not ours."
But Mr Bolton conceded that military action had many disadvantages and might not succeed. "It's very risky for the price of oil, risky because you could, let's say, take out their enrichment capabilities at Natanz, and they may have enrichment capabilities elsewhere you don't know about."
Such a strike would only be a "last option" after economic sanctions and attempts to foment a popular revolution had failed but the risks of using military force, he indicated, would be less than those of tolerating a nuclear Iran. "Imagine what it would be like with a nuclear Iran. Imagine the influence Iran could have over the entire region. It's already pushing its influence in Iraq through the financing of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah."
Although he praised Tony Blair for his support of America over the Iraq war, he criticised the Prime Minister, who is due to visit Washington today to bid farewell to Mr Bush, for persisting with supporting EU attempts to negotiate with Iran that were "doomed to fail".
"Blair just didn't focus on it as much as [Jack] Straw [former Foreign Secretary] did, and it was very much a Foreign Office thing because they wanted to show their European credentials, wanted to work with the Germans and the French to show 'we'll solve Iran in a way differently than those cowboy Americans solved Iraq'."
Mr Bolton, a leading advocate of the Iraq war, insisted that it had been right to overthrow Saddam Hussein and that the later failures did not mean that military action against rogue states should not be contemplated again.
"The regime itself was the threat and we dealt with the threat. Now, what we did after that didn't work out so well. That doesn't say to me, therefore you don't take out regimes that are problematic.
"It says, in the case of Iraq, and a lot of this I have to say we've learned through the benefit of hindsight, was that we should've given responsibility back to Iraqis more quickly."
The Bush administration has moved some distance away from the hawkish views of Mr Bolton and Mr Cheney, which were dominant in the president's first term, towards the more traditional diplomatic approach favoured by the State Department.
But his is still a highly influential voice and Mr Bush remains adamant that he will not allow Iran to become armed with nuclear weapons.
The Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans for military action and some senior White House officials share Mr Bolton's thinking.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2007.