Bothersome Intel on Iran

In public, President Bush has been careful to reassure Israel and other allies that he still sees Iran as a threat, while not disavowing his administration's recent National Intelligence Estimate. That NIE, made public Dec. 3, embarrassed the administration by concluding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003, which seemed to undermine years of bellicose rhetoric from Bush and other senior officials about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document, said a senior administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. "He told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views" about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, said the official, who would discuss intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity.

Bush's behind-the-scenes assurances may help to quiet a rising chorus of voices inside Israel's defense community that are calling for unilateral military action against Iran. Olmert, asked by NEWSWEEK after Bush's departure on Friday whether he felt reassured, replied: "I am very happy." A source close to the Israeli leader said Bush first briefed Olmert about the intelligence estimate a week before it was published, during talks in Washington that preceded the Annapolis peace conference in November. According to the source, who also refused to be named discussing the issue, Bush told Olmert he was uncomfortable with the findings and seemed almost apologetic.

Israeli and other foreign officials asked Bush to explain the NIE, which concluded with "high confidence" that Iran halted what the document describes as its "nuclear weapons program." The NIE arrived at this finding even though Tehran continues to operate uranium-enrichment centrifuges that many experts believe are intended to develop material for a bomb, and despite the CIA's assertion that it had, for the first time, concrete evidence of such a weaponization program. Most confusing of all, the document seemed to directly contradict a 2005 NIE that concluded—also with "high confidence"—that Iran did have such a weapons program. Bush's national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters in Jerusalem that Bush had only said to Olmert privately what he's already said publicly, which is that he believes Iran remains "a threat" no matter what the NIE says. But the president may be trying to tell his allies something more: that he thinks the document is a dead letter.

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