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WASHINGTON - First Iraq, now Iran. The United States has operated under a cloud of faulty intelligence in both countries.
In a bombshell intelligence assessment, the United States has backed away from its once-ironclad assertion that Tehran is intent on building nuclear bombs.
Where there once was certainty, there now is doubt. "We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons," the new estimate said Monday.
Compare that with what then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told Congress in January. "Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons."
Just last month, President Bush, at a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said, "We talked about Iran and the desire to work jointly to convince the Iranian regime to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, for the sake of peace."
More ominously, Bush told a news conference Oct. 17, "I've told people that 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."
Asked then if he definitely believed that Iran wanted to build a nuclear bomb, Bush said, "Yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon."
Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the president made comments like those "because he was describing the threat as the intelligence community itself had been describing the threat both publicly and in their briefings to him."
Intelligence officials advised Bush several months ago that they were reevaluating their assessments about Iran. They came to the White House last Wednesday and briefed him on their new findings.
The intelligence flip-flop recalled the embarrassing reversal that Bush was forced to make on whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The conviction that Saddam Hussein had such weapons was one of the factors behind Bush's decision to invade Iraq. It since has been determined that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats on Monday did not hesitate to suggest an Iran-Iraq comparison.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats had requested the new Iran assessment "so that the administration could not rush this Congress and the country to another war based on flawed intelligence."
"I hope this administration reads this report carefully and appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy vis-a-vis Iran," Reid said. "The administration should begin this process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran."
In the case of Iran, though, the White House has not dropped its suspicions that Tehran could pursue a nuclear bomb.
Iran continues to develop, test and deploy ballistic missiles, and its civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. "It can readily use the same technology to produce weapons-grade uranium," Hadley said.
In rewriting the conclusions about Iran, the new estimate said Tehran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program but halted that effort in the fall of 2003 under the weight of international pressure. Importantly, the estimate said Iran has not restarted the nuclear bomb program.
"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," the new estimate said.
While key facts have changed, the administration's strategy has not.
The White House says it will continue to try to build pressure on Iran to prevent it from ever acquiring nuclear bombs.
"The bottom line is that for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions and with other financial pressure," Hadley said. "And Iran has to decide that it wants to negotiate a solution."
Some analysts believe the new conclusions will be a roadblock for Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawkish members of the administration to be more confrontational toward Iran.
"It's a good thing that we caught this before we marched headlong into another military conflict," said Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This isn't the timebomb the administration made it out to be for the last several years."
Wolfsthal said the conclusion that international pressure prompted Iran to halt its program "is the piece of information that we missed in Iraq" where Bush believed that Iraq's pursuit of WMD was continuing despite sanctions. He said the administration did not appear inclined to change its strategy toward Iran. He said that "suggests they can't take yes for an answer."