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U.S. Policy on Iran Under New Scrutiny after Weapons Report

A day after a new intelligence report found that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, President Bush warned that Iran remains a threat and could restart its weapons program at any time. Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee discuss the report and U.S. policy on Iran.

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    The latest National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, containing findings about Iran's nuclear programs dominated the president's news conference today.


    Mr. President, a new intelligence report says that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago and that it remains frozen. Are you still convinced that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb? And do the new findings take the military option that you've talked about off the table?

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I think it is very important for the international community to recognize the fact that, if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger for the world.

    And so I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. 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, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program.

    And so it's a — to me, the NIE provides an opportunity for us to rally the international community, continue to rally the community to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program.


    The president said he was not concerned that the new estimate, which contradicts one released in 2005, would hurt the credibility of U.S. intelligence or his administration.


    You know, I want to compliment the intelligence community for their good work. Right after the failure of intelligence in Iraq, we reformed the intel community so that there was a lot of serious considerations of NIEs in a way that would give us confidence.

    And here's a, I think, a very important product that is a result of the reforms we've put in place.

    People said, "Well, why is it that you can't get exact knowledge quicker?" Well, the answer is, is because we're dealing with a regime that is not very transparent. And, frankly, we haven't had a very good presence in Iran since 1979.

    And that's why I instructed the intel community to beef up its intelligence on Iran, so we could have a better sense for what they're thinking and what they're doing. And this product is a result of intelligence reform and, more importantly, the good, hard work of our intelligence community.


    You talked about Iraq, you and others in the administration talked about a mushroom cloud; then there were no WMD in Iraq. When it came to Iran, you said in October, on October 17th, you warned about the prospect of World War III.

    So can't you be accused of hyping this threat? And don't you worry that that undermines U.S. credibility?


    I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John McConnell — Mike McConnell who came in and said, "We have some new information." He didn't tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

    Why would you take time to analyze new information? One, you want to make sure it's not disinformation; you want to make sure the piece of intelligence you have is real. And, secondly, they want to make sure they understand the intelligence they gathered. If they think it's real, then what does it mean? And it wasn't until last week that I was briefed on the NIE that is now public.

    Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. 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?


    Reaction abroad has been mixed. Iranian officials said the new intelligence report supported Tehran's longstanding claims that its nuclear program is only for civilian use. And China, which agreed only reluctantly to pass sanctions against Iran, said it hoped the NIE would spur new diplomatic efforts.

    But Britain and France, which are also permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, said they would continue to seek further sanctions against Iran.


    Gwen Ifill takes the story from there.