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By Matt Spetalnick and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush insisted on Tuesday that Iran remains dangerous and urged continued international pressure despite a new intelligence report that Tehran halted its nuclear arms program in 2003.
Rushing to defend his hardline policy on Iran, Bush denied the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which contradicted his earlier assertions that Tehran was trying to build a nuclear bomb, had dealt a blow to U.S. credibility.
“Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush told a White House news conference.
Reasserting his administration’s refusal to rule out military action, he said “all options are on the table” in dealing with Iran but insisted that the United States was stressing diplomacy to resolve the nuclear standoff.
Bush spoke one day after U.S. intelligence agencies released an assessment concluding that Iran had stopped efforts to develop a nuclear bomb more than four years ago, a sharp reversal from a 2005 report.
The new findings took U.S. friends and foes by surprise amid a campaign of increasingly strident rhetoric against Tehran, including a stark warning by Bush last month that a nuclear-armed Tehran could lead to World War Three.
Analysts said the report, which noted that Tehran’s nuclear weapons intentions were now unclear, might undermine Washington’s drive to persuade other world powers to agree on a third round of U.N. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Iran quickly welcomed the report as a vindication of its long-standing claim that its nuclear program had only peaceful aims such as electricity generation.
Britain and France said they would continue to seek further sanctions against Iran. China and Russia so far have resisted tougher measures.
The shift in the U.S. intelligence community’s thinking on Iran comes five years after a flawed NIE concluded neighboring Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction -- a report that helped pave the way for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
No nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were ever found in Iraq and intelligence agencies since have been more cautious about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Brushing aside any comparison with Iraq, Bush -- who had repeatedly accused Iran of working covertly to build a nuclear bomb -- said there was still a serious threat of Tehran using its uranium enrichment program to resume its weapons program.
“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.”
He said the new report should be viewed not as a reason for pulling back but for keeping the heat on Iran.
“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,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, among senior Democrats who had requested the updated assessment on Iran, called for a top-to-bottom review of Iran policy.
“President Bush’s heated rhetoric on Iran, including comments about a potential World War Three, is even more outrageous now that we know the intelligence community had informed him that it believes Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago,” Reid said.
“This is the latest in a long line of inaccurate and misleading comments that got us into the Iraq war to begin with.”
Reflecting the seriousness of his damage-control effort, Bush was at times defensive, at other times combative in answering reporters’ questions.
He denied any concern about his political standing or about a credibility gap with the American public.
“No, I‘m feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life,” Bush said. (Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Patricia Wilson and John O‘Callaghan)