WASHINGTON — President Bush worked the phones Tuesday to salvage his hard-line policy toward Iran, lobbying foreign leaders for tougher economic sanctions despite a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded that the Islamic republic halted its secret nuclear weapons program four years ago.
Several U.S. officials and experts, however, said that the new National Intelligence Estimate has upended Bush's policy and erased any justification for threatening military strikes. The president will now find it difficult to persuade Russia and China — and even America's European allies — to impose new sanctions on Iran, even though it refuses to heed United Nations demands to stop enriching uranium, they said.
"A new resolution is going to be very hard to get, if not impossible," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Bush showed no sign of backing down.
"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," Bush insisted a day after the release of the report, which contradicted a 2005 finding that Tehran had an active nuclear weapons program. "The policy remains the same."
Asked at a news conference if he was maintaining his threat to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Bush replied, "The best diplomacy, effective diplomacy, is one of which all options are on the table."
He said that the new intelligence finding provides a "rare opportunity for us to rally the international community" behind new sanctions and that he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been "working the phones" with foreign leaders.
The report, though, has dealt another blow to Bush's credibility — which already was low over his false claims about illicit weapons in Iraq — because he was aware of the findings when he warned on Oct. 17 that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons could ignite World War III.
Two other U.S. officials indicated that the administration could be forced to adopt a less confrontational policy to maintain a semblance of international unity on Iran. That shift could entail the United States joining European powers in talks with Tehran.
"One of the big things that has been a glaring omission (in U.S. policy) is the lack of face-to-face, even quiet, secret, negotiations," said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It wouldn't surprise me if that were to change."
"We might get to a point where that would be true, but we're not there yet," said an administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
In an interview with McClatchy on Nov. 23, Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency outlined a diplomatic resolution that included U.S. acknowledgment that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, which the new NIE appeared to do. In response, Iran would comply with U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, said Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh.
"We could suspend nuclear enrichment," he said. "We did it before for two-and-a-half years."
Bush discussed the NIE in a 40-minute phone call Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been playing an increasingly high-profile role in efforts to find a diplomatic solution, including making the first visit to Iran by a Russian leader in decades.
Putin later held talks with Iran's new chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and told him before the meeting began: "We expect that your programs in the nuclear sphere will be open, transparent and be conducted under control of the authoritative international organization."
There have been other moves of late:
Iran has released several Iranian-American detainees, the United States has freed half the Iranians it was holding in Iraq, and U.S. officials have said that Iran has reduced shipments of arms to anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq as part of an effort to stabilize its violence-torn neighbor.
Iran, which hid its nuclear activities from U.N. inspectors for 18 years, celebrated the NIE as a vindication of its claims that its program is strictly to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants.
"The U.S. administration's previous allegations against Iran have been baseless and fabricated," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Both China and Russia, which have significant commercial interests in Iran, have opposed any new international sanctions, and it appears that they will continue to do so.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency as noting Iran's "correct mood" on fulfilling a pact with the IAEA to disclose all aspects of its nuclear activities.
China's ambassador to the United Nations, Guangya Wang, indicated that Beijing may balk at a third resolution on sanctions, saying, "I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed."
But Bush insisted Tuesday that Iran remains a threat. He cited its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, which could produce highly enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.
"I view this report as a warning signal," Bush said. "And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. The thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program."
(Warren P. Strobel contributed.)
ON THE WEB
Read McClatchy's earlier interview with Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.