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Iran is still dangerous, Bush warns

Times Staff Writers

President Bush said Tuesday that despite a new intelligence assessment concluding Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, the country still posed a danger and must stop enriching uranium.

Bush repeated that “all options are on the table” for dealing with Tehran, and he urged world leaders to keep pressure on the government. But diplomats and analysts said the new report lessened the likelihood of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and could hamper the U.S. campaign to win support for new economic sanctions.

“It will be much more difficult to get Russia and China and the reluctant Europeans to go for tough sanctions,” said Gary Samore, a top arms control official in the Clinton White House. Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that, although the administration would continue to pursue such penalties, “it will be without much effect.”

He predicted that 2008, amid the presidential campaign, would be “a lost year” and that the issue would be left for the next president.

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At a White House news conference dominated by questions about Iran, Bush called the National Intelligence Estimate released Monday a “warning signal” and said it lent support to his unyielding approach to Iran.

“This report is not a ‘O.K., everybody needs to relax and quit’ report,” Bush said. “This is a report that says what has happened in the past could be repeated.

“Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” he said. “The NIE says that Iran had a hidden -- a covert nuclear weapons program. That’s what it said. What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?”

The assessment, representing the consensus of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded with “high confidence” that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapon designs and had ended covert efforts in autumn 2003 to produce highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. It said the agencies had “moderate confidence” that Iran had not resumed the program as of the middle of this year.

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Uranium enriched at a lower level can fuel a nuclear power plant; at much higher levels it can be used to build a weapon. Iran has maintained that its enrichment program is intended only to produce electricity.

The report concluded that Iran was at a minimum keeping open the option of developing a nuclear weapon. But it said that the Islamic Republic was unlikely to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium before 2009, and it might take as long as 2015.

Philip Zelikow, a former senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the facts that have caused concerns about Iran “have not changed much at all.”

Zelikow said the report complicated the Bush administration’s diplomatic agenda, and would make it harder for U.S. allies in Europe “to sustain the efforts politically.”

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At the same time, he said, it would “reassure a lot of people that the administration is not likely to contemplate imminent military action,” a scenario that has triggered consternation in foreign capitals and in Congress, and that has spurred debate on the presidential campaign trail.

Among U.S. allies, France has been the most adamant about pressuring Iran, Britain slightly less so, and Germany more reluctant. The U.S. also must try to overcome strong reservations from Russia and China, which along with France and Britain are the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Bush spoke Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, but declined to characterize the Russian leader’s comments.

Israeli officials questioned the new intelligence findings. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his government believed that though Iran had suspended its weapons program, it since had resumed work.

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One European diplomat in Washington, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the record on the issue, said that the report’s conclusions would make it “much tougher for governments to ask their private companies to give up trade with Iran when even the Americans say there’s no nuclear program.”

The Security Council already has imposed two layers of sanctions against Tehran for failing to suspend its nuclear activities. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilizad, said Tuesday that he was instructed to go ahead with an effort to win Security Council approval for a third sanctions resolution.

The American effort faces a formidable challenge. China and Russia, which had recently indicated they might support a new round of sanctions, now are likely to argue that Iran poses no imminent danger.

Tehran has resisted threats, as well as promises that it would receive political and economic benefits by abandoning uranium enrichment. Last week, Iran’s new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told the European Union’s foreign policy advisor, Javier Solana, that his country would not negotiate over enrichment.

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Iranian officials Tuesday demanded an apology from Washington for its claims in the last few years that they were actively pursuing nuclear weapons.

Bush has declared that he would not tolerate any Iranian capacity for building a nuclear bomb, and many analysts have wondered whether he would order military action in 2008 rather than leave office with Tehran close to having a weapon.

But resistance to an attack has been growing among senior administration officials, including some Pentagon brass, who fear that U.S. bombing of Iranian sites could set off damaging retaliation by Tehran in neighboring Iraq and elsewhere without causing a significant delay in the nuclear program.

The administration is not likely to take the course some Democrats have suggested, trying to open comprehensive talks with Iran. Bush believes that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not be won over by American engagement.

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Bush has made the hard-line leader a focus of his policy, much as he did Saddam Hussein before invading Iraq in 2003.

Referring to the difficulty of persuading international corporations that are fearful of losing a market in Iran to avoid doing business there, Bush said, “Now is the time for the world to do the hard work necessary to convince the Iranians there is a better way forward.”

The disclosure of the intelligence assessment focused attention on what Bush knew about Iran’s weapons program over the last four months as he kept up a steady flow of angry rhetoric. Seven weeks ago, Bush said that in the interest of “avoiding World War III” Iran should be prevented from gaining the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.

That was roughly two months after J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, reported to Bush that he had “some new information” about Iran.

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“He didn’t tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take awhile to analyze,” the president said. He said he was not briefed on the report until last week, and that in the interim no one had suggested that he tone down his language.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, expressed incredulity that Bush, “who gets briefed every morning, who is fixated on Iran,” had not sought details of the new assessment after learning of it in August.

“I can’t believe that,” he said in a phone call with reporters.

Throughout the 43-minute news conference, Bush repeatedly asserted that the National Intelligence Estimate demonstrated that his concern about Iran was valid.

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“We know that they’re still trying to learn how to enrich uranium,” he said. “We know that enriching uranium is an important step in a country who wants to develop a weapon. We know they had a program. We know the program is halted.”

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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