At a press conference Tuesday morning, President Bush said the proper way to view a new report by US intelligence agencies on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is as a warning for the international community to be vigilant about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program," Mr. Bush said. "The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it."
The National Intelligence Estimate (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," Bush said.
The new NIE, made public Monday, said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 partly because of international pressure and scrutiny. The current estimate by the 16 US spy agencies contradicts the intelligence community's view of two years ago that Tehran was working toward building a nuclear bomb.
The new view of Iran's actions also contrasts sharply with previous Bush administration rhetoric. At his last news conference on Oct. 17, Bush said people "interested in avoiding World War III" should be working to prevent Iran from gaining the knowledge needed to make a nuclear bomb. In October, Vice President Cheney said Iran was "working aggressively to develop the capacity to enrich uranium, and the end of that process will be the development of nuclear weapons."
Despite the intelligence community's new assessment of whether Iran was working to develop nuclear weapons, the president said, "the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world."
Bush responded with sarcasm when asked if he had used hyped rhetoric about Iran and hurt his credibility with the public. "I don't want to contradict an august reporter such as yourself," Bush said to NBC White House correspondent David Gregory. The president said he had not been briefed on the contents of the new NIE until last week. He added, "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
When Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Silva asked if he were disheartened about the potential of facing a credibility gap with the American people because Iran was found not to be working on a nuclear bomb, Bush replied, "No, I'm feeling pretty spirited – pretty good about life."
One of his most heartfelt responses at the press conference came on another topic. Bush was asked about a woman in Saudi Arabia who was raped but was nevertheless sentenced to 200 lashes and a prison term for being alone with a man not related to her. "My first thoughts were these," Bush said. "What happens if this happens to my daughter? How would I react? And I would have been – I'd have been very emotional, of course. I'd have been angry at those who committed the crime. And I'd be angry at a state that didn't support the victim."
As for Saudi King Abdullah, Bush said, "He knows our position loud and clear."
• Associated Press material was used in this report.