By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
President Bush scrambled yesterday to hold together a fragile international coalition against Iran, declaring that the Islamic republic remains "dangerous" and that "nothing has changed" despite a new intelligence report that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.
While his top diplomats reached out to key counterparts, Bush began calling world leaders and held a White House news conference to argue that the new National Intelligence Estimate only reinforces the need for diplomatic pressure against Iran. Although the report determined that Iran stopped seeking a nuclear bomb in 2003, Bush said Tehran's secrecy shows it cannot be trusted.
The new intelligence electrified Washington and foreign capitals, transforming the debate on what has been widely characterized as a central threat to international security. It dominated a Democratic presidential debate yesterday, as rivals of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) used it to attack her for being too supportive of Bush's approach to Iran. And it once again put the credibility of the U.S. government in dispute five years after intelligence agencies wrongly reported that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Iranian leaders boasted that the new report vindicated them, but European allies agreed with Bush that Tehran's continued uranium enrichment program for what it says are civilian purposes remains a threat that merits international action. A senior U.S. envoy won agreement from other permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany to push forward for additional sanctions, according to U.S. and foreign officials, although some worried that the consensus would tatter.
Bush defended his approach during a televised session in the White House briefing room, saying "our policy remains the same" regardless of the new intelligence.
"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 estimate, based on intercepted communications and other fresh information gathered in recent months, concluded that Iranian leaders tried to develop nuclear weapons until 2003, when U.S.-led diplomatic pressure led them to halt it. The finding represented a striking about-face from a 2005 intelligence report that said Iran was actively trying to build a bomb, and it undercut stark warnings by Bush in recent years.
Bush said the willingness to reverse the assessment showed the success of his effort after the Iraq debacle to revamp U.S. intelligence and make it more open to contrary information. He said he was first told about the new information in August by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, but not in detail because analysts needed to evaluate it before intelligence agencies reached a formal consensus last week. He made clear it did not change his view and would not have changed his rhetoric, including his October warning about the possibility of World War III if Iran builds nuclear weapons.
He argued that uranium enrichment technology could be used to help develop weapons and noted that Iran has tested ballistic missiles. "Nothing has changed in this NIE that says, 'Okay, why don't we just stop worrying about it?' " he said. "Quite the contrary. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously. My opinion hasn't changed." And while arguing for diplomacy, he repeated that "all options are on the table," including military force.
Bush's comments triggered harsh criticism. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate, scoffed at the notion that McConnell did not tell Bush the details of the new intelligence in August.
"If that's true," Biden said, "he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history and he would be one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history." Biden said military force should be off the table, saying he would support impeaching Bush "if he were to attack without provocation."
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki welcomed the U.S. assessment and said it is time that countries "correct their views." Other Iranian politicians called for a formal apology and compensation for sanctions.
Government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham charged that U.S. "lies" had inflicted serious "damage" to Iran, and that Washington should "pay the price for its action." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was more understated, saying that the United States and its allies "should accept nuclear rights of the Iranian nation."
An envoy for China, which has resisted tougher action against Iran at the U.N. Security Council, said the new intelligence makes it less likely that additional sanctions will be imposed. "I think the council members will have to consider that, because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed," Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters at the United Nations.
Israel, on the other hand, dismissed the importance of the intelligence and called on Washington to keep up the pressure. "It is vital to continue efforts to prevent Iran from attaining a capability like this, and we will continue doing so along with our friends the United States," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
The development frustrated U.S. allies. "The NIE has given comfort to America's opponents and a new diplomatic challenge to its allies," said a senior European diplomat familiar with the emerging debate. Key diplomats were especially annoyed that the report was released just two days after a U.S.-orchestrated meeting in Paris last weekend to discuss the next stage of sanctions.
Bush and his advisers are optimistic that they can salvage their diplomatic initiative. Bush talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the new intelligence yesterday and plans to call other leaders in coming days. White House officials were heartened that Putin later told Iran's visiting nuclear negotiator that the country's enrichment program should be "open, transparent and conducted under control of the authoritative international organization."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the past two days called nearly all five of the foreign ministers of countries involved in the Iran sanctions discussions and told reporters traveling with her to Africa yesterday that easing pressure on Tehran would be a "big mistake." Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, traveling in Australia, called his counterparts from Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, and reinforced the need to move ahead with a new U.N. resolution against Iran.
Several allies issued statements noting that the new intelligence validates concerns about Iran's long-term intentions and the ongoing risk that it could divert its uranium enrichment to develop a nuclear weapon. The report confirmed "the double approach chosen by the international community of incentive and measures from the U.N. Security Council was right," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Deutsche Welle.
But diplomats said the situation is so fluid that any agreement may not survive the week. "At least at this point, the NIE has not had any particular impact on how people wish to proceed," said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. "But, you know, proof is in the resolution passing."
Another official, noting "unhappy feelings" in allied capitals, said: "We are trying to hold it together, but won't know for a while what [the] prospects are."
Some Bush supporters expressed doubt that the current diplomatic strategy will work, given the new intelligence. Robert Kagan, a foreign policy analyst close to the administration, said that the military option "is now gone," and that winning European support for serious sanctions is "impossible."
In an op-ed column in today's Washington Post, Kagan wrote: "With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran."