The Times: President Bush yesterday insisted that Iran remained a genuine threat to world peace, despite a new US intelligence report concluding that the Tehran regime had halted its nuclear weapons programme four years ago. The Times
Tom Baldwin in Washington and Sheera Claire Frenkel in Jerusalem
President Bush yesterday insisted that Iran remained a genuine threat to world peace, despite a new US intelligence report concluding that the Tehran regime had halted its nuclear weapons programme four years ago.
In a White House press conference, where he was bombarded with questions about the implications for his own credibility, Mr Bush declared he had seen nothing to change either his own mind or Washington’s policy on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon, he said.
At his last press conference on October 17 Mr Bush said that anyone interested in avoiding World War III should back his efforts to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Yesterday, he struck a defiant note, claiming that this week’s National Intelligence Estimate should be regarded as a vindication of – and a reason to continue taking – a tough stance towards Tehran.
I view this report as a warning signal that they had the programme, they halted the programme, said the President. The reason why it’s a warning signal is they could restart it.
The NIE on Monday appears to have removed the casus belli for an American airstrike against an imminent threat posed by Iran. But Mr Bush yesterday refused to rule out the prospect of military action, saying: The best diplomacy – effective diplomacy – is one in which all options are on the table.
He has record low approval ratings and increasingly appears a marginalised figure in US politics with his name being mentioned only twice in a two hour Republican presidential debate last week.
Yesterday, however, he claimed to be still feeling pretty good about life as he promised not to be blinded by Iranian duplicity. It will not happen on my watch, he said. I understand the issue and clearly see the problem.
Senior military sources believe that with the recent departure of many US Administration hawks, Israel – facing threats to its very existence from Tehran – is more likely than the US to order an airstrike against Iran.
Officials in Tel Aviv yesterday reiterated their own intelligence assessment that Tehran could possess a nuclear weapon by 2009, saying they remained focused on the worst case scenario.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said yesterday: Iran is probably continuing its programme of fabricating a nuclear bomb. He added: We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend.
The NIE, a consensus view of all 16 US spy agencies, said that Iran was less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. The report concluded that the programme probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure, before adding that Iran might yet get enough enriched uranium to develop a nuclear bomb between 2010 and 2015 if it re-started the operation.
Pentagon sources yesterday indicated that fresh intelligence had been gleaned from an analysis of TV pictures showing the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz which Iran has always claimed is developing nuclear energy rather than weapons.
The US has also had information from the interrogation of the defector Ali Rez Asgari, a member of the Revolutionary Guard who disappeared recently on a visit to Turkey.
Mr Bush said that he had been told about the new findings only last week. He indicated that his Administration was trying to stop the unravelling of the international coalition it has built up against Iran with senior officials, including the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, working the phones.
Mr Bush, who spoke to Vladimir Putin by phone for 40 minutes, said yesterday: To me, the NIE provides an opportunity for us to rally the international community – to continue to rally the community – to pressure the Iranian regime. He then asked rhetorically: What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons programme?
In Downing Street, Gordon Brown’s spokesman said: The report confirms we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It also shows the intent is there and the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious issue.
Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said: This report proves Bush’s statements – which always speak of the serious threat of Iran’s nuclear programme – are unreliable and fictitious.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Authority, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said that the report tallied with his own findings of no concrete evidence that a weapons programme existed, adding it should help to defuse the current crisis.