Wang Guangya, China's U.N. ambassador, told reporters that moves to impose sanctions on Tehran should be reconsidered.

"Things have changed," he said.

Chinese analysts said they expect Beijing to maintain its low-key response until it can better assess Washington's change of heart, and that there's little immediate upside in gloating now that U.S. experts are supporting its long-standing arguments.

China has long viewed tighter sanctions skeptically. In part, this reflects a desire to avoid upsetting Iran, an ally and energy supplier. But self-interest also is at work: China has bridled, as has Russia, at the United States' global policeman role amid concern that it too might become the object of sanctions in some future showdown.

Western Europe may continue to push toward sanctions, but the report does create political discomfort for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has pointedly sided with Bush against Iran. The French leader sounded off against Tehran repeatedly as he campaigned for office this year. The U.S. report leaves Sarkozy uncomfortably exposed, French analysts said.

When the French and U.S. presidents met in Maine during August vacations, "certainly President Bush presented a picture of Iran which created much anxiety in Mr. Sarkozy's mind," said Francois Nicoullaud, the French ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005. Sarkozy returned to France convinced that Iran would soon have the bomb, and "it would be necessary to strike Iran to avoid such an eventuality," he said.

"Sarkozy's logic may have had less to do with imposing sanctions and more about being an ally of the United States," said Thierry Coville, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. "Maybe it's good to be an ally, no matter what. But maybe if you go to very extreme, it's difficult to come back."

In Moscow, the prospects of new contracts in Iran are tantalizing the business community and political elite.

When Putin received Iranian Supreme National Security Council secretary Saeed Jalili at his residence this week, the two discussed the construction of Iran's first nuclear power plant. The plant at Bushehr is being built by Russian firm Atomstroyexport. Putin assured the Iranians that the project would be completed on schedule, Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.

"Iran has not been violating any international laws implementing this project. It is clear to all," Atomstroyexport spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said. Still, she said, "any project is much easier to implement when there is clear perceptions and friendly attitudes."

Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, has been trying to develop Iran's enormous Azar oil field, but found it slow going. The field is expected to yield 2.5 billion barrels of oil, company spokesman Grigory Volchek said, but progress has lapsed amid prolonged negotiations. He declined to say whether the delays were linked to sanctions.

"Right now it's in a very passive stage," he said.

But many observers were still struggling to understand what the intelligence assessments portend. Particularly in Moscow and Beijing, analysts were incredulous that the intelligence agencies would take a stance undercutting the president, and theorized that the report might herald a shift in Bush administration strategy.

"We wonder, not only China but the rest of the world: Should we believe this report, why now, what's behind it, is this political maneuvering or some sort of power struggle inside the White House," said Chu Shulong, professor and director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Beijing's Qinghua University. "A lot of foreign governments are puzzled. The U.S. government is becoming much more inconsistent and less reliable."

megan.stack@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writers Geraldine Baum in Paris, Kim Murphy in London, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, and special correspondent Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.