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A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which was briefed on the U.S. intelligence report two hours before its release, saw the judgments as validation of its own long-standing conclusion that there is "no evidence" of an undeclared nuclear program in Iran. "It also validates the assessments of [IAEA Director General] Mohamed ElBaradei, who continuously said in his public statements that he saw no clear and public danger, and that therefore there was plenty of time for negotiations," said a senior IAEA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But the report included language that the administration can cite to claim success, according to some analysts. Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA official who has been critical of the Bush administration's run-up to war with Iraq, said the revelation about the halted weapons program is a "shocker" but noted that "the administration can say that Iran halted its program during our administration and this is a success for us. And with some good reason."

Others favoring a more confrontational approach to Iran were not convinced by the report. "While I was in the administration, I saw intelligence march up the hill and down the hill in short periods of time with no reason for them to change their mind," said John R. Bolton, Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations. "I've never based my view on this week's intelligence."

Still, the administration understood how explosive the new conclusions would be and kept them tightly held. Hadley said Bush was first told in August or September about intelligence indicating Iran had halted its weapons program, but was advised it would take time to evaluate. Vice President Cheney, Hadley and other top officials were briefed the week before last. Intelligence officials formalized their conclusions on Tuesday and briefed Bush the next day.

After its release, the administration abruptly canceled daily news briefings at the White House and State Department and dispatched Hadley to speak for the government. The White House also announced that Bush will hold a news conference this morning; aides said it was long planned but it will allow him to address the subject.

Presidential candidates responded as well, with Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) using the news to tweak Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for being too willing to support the administration on Iran, an assertion she has rejected. Obama said the report is a reminder that "members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the president any justification to use military force" -- an apparent jab at Clinton, who was briefed on intelligence before the Iraq war but did not read the full report.

Republican candidates, who have expressed their readiness to attack Iran if needed to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons, remained largely silent. "Sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way," said former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Some moderates in Washington expressed concern that this intelligence report's conclusions will be overinterpreted in one direction, just as past findings have been distorted. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of a nonproliferation subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Iran's uranium enrichment remains worrisome and is not dependent on U.S. intelligence because Tehran has openly acknowledged it.

The real lesson of the report, he said, is to recalibrate U.S. policy and try more diplomatic and economic levers. "It's a validation of the middle road," he said, "between going to sleep . . . and the let's-bomb-them-now approach."

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