PARIS (Reuters) - Iran would need another three to eight years to make a nuclear bomb, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said in an interview published on Monday, warning against any rush to use force to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told France's Le Monde newspaper there was plenty of time for diplomacy, sanctions, dialogue and incentives to bear fruit.
Vice President Dick Cheney said on Sunday the world would not stand by and let Iran develop a nuclear weapon, and Washington has not ruled out an attack. Iran says its nuclear plans are peaceful and denies it wants to make an atomic bomb.
"I cannot judge their intentions, but supposing that Iran does intend to acquire a nuclear bomb, it would need between another three and eight years to succeed," ElBaradei told Le Monde. "All the intelligence services agree on that.
"I want to get people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat from tomorrow, and that we are faced right now with the issue of whether Iran should be bombed or allowed to have the bomb," the Nobel peace prize winner said.
"We are not at all in that situation. Iraq is a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it."
There was no immediate comment from Iran on his remarks, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during a visit to Paris that ElBaradei should be more concerned about Iran.
"If Baradei thinks Iran can have a bomb in three years and it doesn't bother him, well it bothers me," Olmert told reporters after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"The Iranians are not as close to a bomb as they would lead people to believe but they are not as far away as I would like them to be," he added.
Israel is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal and has hinted it could resort to force to stop its arch-foe Iran acquiring an atom bomb.
The West wants to impose further sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can make fuel for power plants or, if Iran wanted, material for warheads.
Major powers have agreed to delay a move against Iran until November to see if Tehran answers several IAEA queries about the nature of its atomic program. ElBaradei said it would not be a problem if those talks extended into December.
The powers are also awaiting the result of talks with EU negotiator Javier Solana, who is due to meet an Iranian delegation in Rome on Tuesday that will include Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator who resigned on Saturday, and his hardline replacement Saeed Jalili.
Separately, ElBaradei said he hoped to soon have information on an Israeli raid last month on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria, which has been shrouded in mystery.
Israel has confirmed it carried out an air strike on Syria on September 6 but has not described the target. Syria has said only that it was a building under construction.
ElBaradei said he had no information that North Korea had been supplying nuclear know-how to Syria and noted the U.N. charter only permitted the use of force in the face of an imminent threat or with the prior approval of the world body.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Paris)