WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States believes Iran is a year or a more away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press released on Saturday, describing the estimate as "conservative."
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"Our assessment continues to be a year or more away, and in fact, actually our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services," Obama said in reply to a question about the U.S. intelligence assessment on Iran's timetable for nuclear weapons.
Obama has directed U.S. officials to try to work out an agreement with Iran to end its nuclear program, an opportunity he has said is worth exploring after the election of the relatively moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The United States, Israel and other countries accuse Iran of using its nuclear program to try to develop the capability to produce weapons. Iran says the program is for peaceful energy purposes only.
Obama and Rouhani spoke by telephone a week ago, the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades.
"I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world," Obama said in the AP interview.
Israel publicly warned last week that new Iranian uranium centrifuges could give Israel the ability to produce bomb fuel "within weeks."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Rouhani's overtures as a ruse. Obama said he understands why Israel is skeptical, but said he wants to test whether Rouhani can "follow through."
"The way the Iranian system works, he's not the only decision maker. He's not even the ultimate decision maker," Obama said.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday he supported Rouhani's diplomatic opening at the U.N. General Assembly last week.
But Khamenei, who would make final decisions on any nuclear deal, said that some of what occurred at the U.N. was "not proper" - a hint at some disagreement over Rouhani's phone conversation with Obama.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Vicki Allen and Jackie Frank)
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