Condoleezza Rice calls easing of pressure on Iran a 'big mistake'
Bush: New data claiming Iran halted program won't prompt military action, but option still viable.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Tuesday it would be a "big mistake" to ease world pressure on Iran just because a U.S. intelligence report said Tehran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
Rice, who has spent years battling to get the backing of reluctant world powers such as Russia and China to punish Iran over its nuclear program, said she would continue to push for a third UN Security Council sanctions resolution against Tehran.
"The timing has got to be to continue to pursue the Security Council resolutions, to pursue the other pressures that we are bringing to bear, so that they don't acquire the fissile material [to build a bomb]," Rice told reporters traveling with her to Ethiopia.
"I continue to see Iran as a dangerous power in international politics," she added before a refueling stop in Rota, southern Spain.
Rice said she had called nearly all of her key counterparts dealing with the Iran issue since the National Intelligence Estimate was released on Monday, which contradicted the Bush administration's earlier assertion that Iran was intent on building a bomb and likely undermined U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran.
The intelligence assessment's finding that Iran had stopped its weapons program was "good news", Rice said, but Tehran was still continuing to develop the technical means that could ultimately be used to build a bomb.
"If it [new U.S. intelligence] causes people to say: 'Oh, then we don't need to worry about what the Iranians are doing,' I think then we will have made a big mistake," Rice said.
"What they are doing is continuing the enrichment and reprocessing activities - in fact as far as we can tell, trying to perfect them," she added.
United States President George W. Bush also said on Tuesday that the international community should continue to pressure Iran on its nuclear programs, saying the new U.S. intelligence report provides an opportunity.
"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program," Bush said. "The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it."
The new intelligence pertaining to Iran's nuclear program stood in marked contrast to Bush's rhetoric on Iran. At his last news conference on October 17, for instance, he said that people interested in avoiding World War III should be working to prevent Iran from having the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.
Bush said the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate would not prompt him to take a U.S. military action against Tehran off the table.
"The best diplomacy - effective diplomacy - is one in which all options are on the table," he said.
Bush said Tuesday that he only learned of the new intelligence assessment last week. But he portrayed it as valuable ammunition against Tehran, not as a reason to lessen diplomatic pressure.
"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 to suspend its program," the president said. "What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?"
He also asserted that the report means that nothing has changed, focusing on the previous existence of a weapons program and not addressing the discrepancy between his rhetoric and the disclosure that weapons program has been frozen for four years.
"I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger," he said. "I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."
In Kabul, Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reinforced the U.S. position that the new U.S. intelligence assessment shows that Tehran remains a possible threat. He said it shows that Iran has had a nuclear weapons program and that as long as the country continues enriching uranium, Iran could always renew its weapons program.
"The U.S. intelligence assessment validated the administration's strategy of bringing diplomatic and economic efforts to bear on Iran," Gates said Tuesday, speaking at a news conference with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.
The president also said that the world would agree with his message that Iran shouldn't be let off the hook yet.
In fact, Europeans said the new information strengthens their argument for negotiations with Tehran, but they also said that sanctions are still an option to compel Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program. European officials insisted that the international community should not walk away from years of talks with an often defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends. The report said Iran could still build a nuclear bomb by 2010-2015.
China, for its part, said on Tuesday it had no information to confirm the report, and urged further negotiations to resolve the continuing crisis.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that the report had been noted, but that he cannot confirm the reality of this report.
"However China's position is quite consistent," Qin told reporters at a regular briefing. "I have nothing new to add."
Qin did not directly respond to questions about whether China would back new Security Council sanctions against Iran, or the significance of the report in the negotiating process.