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A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy

By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

Iran had been shaping up as perhaps the dominant foreign policy issue of Bush's remaining year in office and of the presidential campaign to succeed him. Now leaders at home and abroad will have to rethink what they thought they knew about Tehran's intentions and capabilities.

"It's a little head-spinning," said Daniel Benjamin, an official on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "Everybody's going to be trying to scratch their heads and figure out what comes next."

Critics seized on the new National Intelligence Estimate to lambaste what Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called "George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran." Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), echoing other Democrats, called for "a diplomatic surge" to resolve the dispute with Tehran. Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, termed the revelation "a blockbuster development" that "requires a wholesale reevaluation of U.S. policy."

But the White House said the report vindicated its concerns because it concluded that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program until halting it in 2003 and it showed that U.S.-led diplomatic pressure had succeeded in forcing Tehran's hand. "On balance, the estimate is good news," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "On the one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen."

Hadley disagreed that the report showed that past administration statements have been wrong, noting that collecting intelligence on a "hard target" such as Iran is notoriously difficult. "Welcome to the real world," he said.

And he defended Bush's World War III reference in October and repeated it himself during a briefing, saying if the world wants to avoid an Iranian bomb and "having to use force to stop it with all the connotations of World War III, then we need to step up the diplomacy."

Critics should be careful not to dismiss the threat, Hadley added, pointing to Iran's continued enrichment of uranium, which could eventually be used to assist a weapons program. "I'm sure some people will use this as an excuse or a pretext for, you know, flagging on the effort," he said. "Our argument is actually it should be just the reverse, because we need to keep the halting of the nuclear weapons program in place."

Other countries may not see it that way, though, and diplomats said the report may cripple U.S. attempts to win a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran. Just two days earlier, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns met in Paris with British, French, Russian, Chinese and German counterparts to seek support for a new Security Council resolution.

"You'd think that the effort to get a third resolution is dead," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior official at the CIA, Pentagon and NSC now at the Brookings Institution. "This has got to be a very serious argument to be used by opponents of a third resolution. It will say America's own intelligence community says Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago."

Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and a leading Iran hawk, agreed. "Certainly it makes diplomacy a lot more difficult," he said. "It almost gives Berlin, Beijing and Moscow an excuse not to come together for a third round of sanctions."

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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