Iran Remains 'Dangerous,' Bush Insists
Jim Young, Reuters
A report stating Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago is a "warning signal," George W. Bush said yesterday.
WASHINGTON - U.S. President George W. Bush defended his administration's hard line on Iran yesterday, warning that the regime in Tehran remains a serious threat despite a new U.S. intelligence report showing the country halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.
"Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," Mr. Bush said. "Iran had a hidden, covert nuclear weapons program. What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?"
Mr. Bush made the comments during a news conference aimed at defusing criticism his administration has over-hyped the threat posed by Iran. Hoping to keep the UN Security Council onside with tougher sanctions on Iran, Mr. Bush touted the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) as evidence Tehran could quickly resume its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
A little more than a month ago, Mr. Bush said he feared Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon could lead to "World War III."
The new intelligence report says Iran suspended efforts to build a nuclear bomb in 2003, but continues to enrich uranium and develop long-range ballistic missiles. What the U.S. is now seeking to prevent, Mr. Bush said, is Iran gaining the knowledge needed to build a bomb.
"I view this report as a warning signal," Mr. Bush said. "And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program."
Still, the unexpected U.S. intelligence finding immediately produced calls for the Bush administration to cool its rhetoric toward the Islamic regime.
Representative Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic congressional caucus, said the U.S. "can now be clear-eyed and hard-headed as it approaches the Iranians."
"We do not have to operate from fear or weakness. We have strength here. And I think the NIE report shows that."
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki welcomed the U.S. report as evidence that Iran's nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only.
"It's natural that we welcome it when those countries who in the past have questions and ambiguities about this case ... now amend their views realistically," Mr. Mottaki told state radio.
"The condition of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities is becoming clear to the world."
Mr. Bush maintained that the new intelligence report shows "the strategy we have used in the past is effective" in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Many in the world are going to take heart in noting that it's diplomatic pressure that caused them to change their mind," he said. "And plenty of people understand that if they learn how to enrich [uranium], that knowledge can be transferred to a weapons pro-gram if Iran so chooses."
But he was put on the defensive when reporters asked him whether he had exaggerated the threat posed by Iran. On Oct. 17, Mr. Bush said Americans needed to isolate Iran "if you're interested in avoiding World War III."
Mr. Bush said the director of the Central Intelligence Agency informed him of "new information" about Iran's weapons program, "but it wasn't until last week that I was briefed" on its content.
When a reporter suggested Mr. Bush looked "dispirited" at having to explain such a major re-evaluation of its intelligence, the President was taken aback.
"All of a sudden it's like Psychology 101," Mr. Bush said.
"I'm feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life."
The White House has struggled for years to regain credibility among Americans after its erroneous claim prior to the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
But Mr. Bush dismissed the suggestion the U.S. will now find it more difficult to convince UN Security Council members such as Russia and China to impose additional sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear energy program.
The UN has already passed two sets of sanctions against Iran and met last weekend to discuss a further round.
Reacting to the NIE report, both Britain and France stressed the importance of maintaining pressure on Iran.
"It confirms we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons [and] shows that the sanctions program and international pressure were having an effect, in that they seem to have abandoned the weaponization element," said a spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.