WASHINGTON—George W. Bush has refused to soften his belief that Iran poses a global menace, even after his own intelligence experts told him Tehran has not pursued a nuclear weapon since 2003.
The U.S. president faced questions about his credibility from opponents who charged he was hyping an Iranian threat for months even after he was presented with evidence to the contrary.
Bush told a news conference here yesterday that American policy on Iran, which includes potential pre-emptive military strikes, has not changed and he said the report by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) should rally the international community to keep the pressure on the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The world must use “effective diplomacy” with Iran, Bush said, adding all options remain on the table.
“Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush said. “What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?”
The stakes are high and go beyond his own credibility or his foreign policy in his last year in office.
Last week’s start of Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., were judged a modest success largely because of the presence of so many Arab nations, many of which attended because they’re wary of a potential Iranian threat.
Any reversal of the Bush stance on Iran could endanger Arab support for the talks, some analysts suggest.
The White House said yesterday that Bush would visit the Middle East in early January. Details of his itinerary were not disclosed.
Worldwide response to the report on Iran varied, with allies France and Britain appearing to back Bush’s contention that Iran still constitutes a threat, but the report is likely to slow any progress toward a third round of tough sanctions to be imposed on Iran.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said he thought the U.S. got it wrong and that Iran continues to work toward a nuclear weapon.
Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog who is often at loggerheads with the Bush administration, said the report should defuse any talk of military action against Iran and spark negotiations with Tehran. The question of the veracity of American intelligence was only one of the points on which Bush was pushed by reporters at the White House.
He denied that the world should be again looking at U.S. intelligence and wondering about the information it provides the administration as it crafts foreign policy.
The last NIE report on Iran, issued in 2005, concluded the country was pursuing an atomic weapon.
“I want to compliment the intelligence community for their good work,” Bush said. “Right after the failure of intelligence in Iraq, we reformed the intelligence community.”
The report released Monday showed that those reforms were working, he said.
Some Democrats agreed that the U.S. intelligence community was no longer providing intelligence to serve the administration’s political needs, as it had been accused of doing leading up to the March 2003 Iraq invasion.
Bush said the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, came to him in August to say there was new information to be processed, but didn’t tell him what it was — only that it would take some time to check it out.
Between August and the release of the NIE report, Bush continued to ratchet up his rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions, linking their goals to a potential World War III at an October press conference.
But many found it difficult to believe a president so intensely focused on Iran was not told — or did not ask — the nature of that fresh intelligence.
“Are you telling me a president who’s briefed every single morning, who’s fixated on Iran, is not told back in August that the tentative conclusion of 16 intelligence agencies in the United States government is they had abandoned their effort for a nuclear weapon in ’03?” said Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee.
“That’s not believable. If that’s true, he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history and he’s one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.”
A coalition of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans wrote to congressional leaders seeking a probe into whether Bush continued to fan the flames of war in Iran, putting American soldiers at risk in Iraq, even after he had been told of the tentative conclusions of the NIE.
Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who now leads in many of the Democratic presidential polls in Iowa, told a debate there yesterday that Bush must now move on the diplomatic front with Iran.
“This administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology,” Obama said.
The intelligence estimate said Iran has left the door open to pursuing atomic weapons, but had made no moves in that regard by the end of last month and was probably incapable of building a bomb before 2015.
Ahmadinejad said the United States and its allies must respect the right of Iranians to pursue a national civilian nuclear program.
“There is no other way, of course,” he declared on his website.