Bush Drops Standard on Iran as Credibility Questioned


By Ken Fireman and Jeff Bliss

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush, his credibility under fire because of intelligence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons drive in 2003, adopted a new argument yesterday to justify tougher sanctions: Just knowing how to produce a bomb is dangerous.

Bush, speaking at a White House news conference, said a new report by U.S. intelligence agencies concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago changed nothing because Iran was still producing enriched uranium that could be used to make a bomb.

"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program," the president said. "And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium."

As a result, Bush said, "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

Today, Bush indicated he was sticking with his policy of requiring Iran to halt enrichment before any nuclear negotiations could begin, even as Democrats call for him to change course.

'Strategic Choice'
"The Iranians have a strategic choice to make," Bush said in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was campaigning for a Republican Senate candidate. "They can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities and fully accept a longstanding offer to suspend their enrichment program and come to the table and negotiate. Or they can continue on a path of isolation."

There was also no sign of compromise from Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed the intelligence report as a "victory" for his country and said the enrichment program would continue. In a speech at a rally in the western city of Ilam, he called nuclear energy the "definite right" of Iranian citizens and said they "won't surrender one bit."

Bush's argument that Iran's nuclear program remains a danger resonated among U.S. allies in Europe, who are frustrated over what they regard as Iranian intransigence and may be skeptical about the accuracy of American intelligence. It drew no support from China and Russia, whose backing will be needed for any new United Nations sanctions, or among the president's domestic political adversaries.

'Victory' for Iran
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said the president's anti-Iranian rhetoric in the face of the new intelligence "undermines America's credibility around the world" and erodes Bush's trustworthiness with the American people.

Biden, 65, in a conference call with reporters, accused Bush of deliberately misleading the public by saying on Oct. 17 that Iran's nuclear ambitions risked "World War III" even though he knew by then that the intelligence community was reassessing whether Iran still had a bomb program.

Biden called for the U.S. and its European allies to open negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program without demanding that the Iranians first halt enrichment.

Bush in that Oct. 17 comment foreshadowed the now-explicit shift to defining the Iranian threat as merely having the know- how to produce a bomb, said Hillary Mann Leverett, a former administration official who has become increasingly critical of its Iran policy.

Knowledge Standard
"If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," Bush, 61, said during a news conference on that day.

By shifting from seeking to block an actual weapons program to the "more amorphous" knowledge standard, Bush is changing a decade-old U.S. policy and making a diplomatic resolution less likely, said Leverett, former director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs at the White House National Security Council.

The U.S.'s European partners in the search for such a diplomatic deal asserted yesterday that the U.S. intelligence report won't end their efforts. A spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Cristina Gallach, said EU governments will continue to pursue UN Security Council talks on new sanctions against Iran because its government continues to reject UN demands to cease uranium enrichment.

Frustration Grows
Shada Islam, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said Solana and other EU officials were deeply disturbed by the unbending attitude displayed by Iran's new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in a meeting late last week.

"The sense of frustration in the EU over Iran is growing," Islam said. "Solana has really bent over backwards in dealing with Tehran."

Russia and China, which were resisting calls for increased sanctions even before the intelligence report, signaled they will likely stiffen their opposition to that course because of the new finding.

China's ambassador to the world body, Wang Guangya, voiced that position in an interview. "Certainly this report coming out will have implications for Security Council members," Wang said. "They will have second thoughts about it. We all start from a presumption that now things have changed."

Iran was China's third-biggest supplier of crude oil through the first 10 months of this year, according to the Beijing-based Customs General Administration.

Russia on Iran
Russian officials, who like the Chinese have previously expressed doubts about the need for stiffer sanctions, have been less categorical in their reaction to the intelligence report.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today his country would "take into account" the report in formulating its position on a new UN resolution, while stopping short of saying it reduced the need for new sanctions.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili that Iran should respect UN demands to freeze uranium enrichment, Lavrov said.

Bush, in his Omaha remarks today, grouped Russia with U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany as countries that understand "the Iranian nuclear issue is a problem." He and Putin spoke by telephone yesterday about Iran.

A Western diplomat said Britain, France and Germany will keep pressing for fresh sanctions regardless of the intelligence report. He said Europeans are skeptical about the finding because they aren't convinced the U.S. has access to reliable information on Iran's nuclear programs.

An Israeli parliamentarian, Ephraim Sneh, also expressed doubts about the report, saying he found it "contradictory."

"On the one hand, it says Iran is enriching uranium and made substantial advances in installing centrifuges," said Sneh, a former deputy defense minister. "What exactly was stopped in 2003?"

Sneh said that because Israel is only 800 miles away from Iran and an expected target of any Iranian weapon, he must focus on "the worst-case scenario."