President Bush answers questions during a White House news conference, Tuesday Dec. 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
(CBS/AP) President Bush said Tuesday that the international community should continue to pressure Iran on its nuclear programs, saying a new intelligence report finding that Tehran halted its development of a nuclear bomb provides an opportunity.
"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."
Mr. Bush spoke one day after a new national intelligence estimate found that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003, largely because of international scrutiny and pressure. That finding is in stark contrast to the comparable intelligence estimate of just two years ago, when U.S. intelligence agencies believed Tehran was determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability and was continuing its weapons development program.
It is also stood in marked contrast to Mr. Bush's rhetoric on Iran. At his last news conference on Oct. 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.
Mr. 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 reduce diplomatic pressure.
"To me, the NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) 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 "nothing's 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."
Mr. Bush said the report's finding would not prompt him to take a U.S. military option against Tehran off the table.
"The best diplomacy - effective diplomacy - is one in which all options are on the table," he said.
Mr. Bush called the news conference, his first in nearly seven weeks, to intensify pressure on lawmakers amid disputes over spending and the Iraq war. Taking advantage of his veto power and the largest bully pulpit in town, Mr. Bush regularly scolds Congress as a way to stay relevant and frame the debate as his presidency winds down.
Democrats counter that Mr. Bush is more interested in making statements than genuinely trying to negotiate some common ground with them.
Specifically, Mr. Bush again on Tuesday challenged Congress to send him overdue spending bills; to approve his latest war funding bill without conditions; to pass a temporary to fix to the alternative minimum tax so millions of taxpayers don't get hit with tax increases; and to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"Congress still has a lot to do," Mr. Bush said. "It doesn't have very much time to do it."
In Kabul, Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reinforced the U.S. position that the new U.S. intelligence assessment shows 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 with its uranium enrichment activities, 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.
One nuclear non-proliferation expert told CBSNews.com the new intelligence findings on Iran represent an "astounding assessment, so sharply different from previous assessments, so sharply in contrast to the policy line" of the Bush administration.
Mark Fitzpatrick, the senior fellow for nuclear non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the intelligence estimate was delayed for months as analysts poured over every detail to ensure the best information was put forward - crucial given the striking departure from Washington's previous claims.
Fitzpatrick said the new report "indicates that the intelligence agencies took some lessons from the Iraq disaster."
Fitzpatrick added that, in light of the extremely cautious atmosphere in the intelligence community, some observers have even expressed concern that analysts may have "erred in the opposite direction" with this report, underestimating Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Democrats quickly criticized Mr. Bush's Iran policy in light of the new intelligence assessment.
"President Bush's heated rhetoric on Iran - including comments about a potential World War III - 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," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"This is the latest in a long line of inaccurate and misleading comments that got us into the Iraq war to begin with. They further diminish the credibility of a president with a dangerous record of overstating threats," he said.
Reid called on Mr. Bush to conduct a thorough review of his Iran policy.
On another matter, Mr. Bush was asked about a rape victim in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her - a violation of the kingdom's strict segregation of the sexes. Saudi Arabia has faced enormous international criticism about the sentencing.
"My first thoughts were these," Mr. Bush said. "What happens if this happens to my daughter? How would I react? And I would have been, I'd of 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."
Mr. Bush, however, said he has not made his views known directly to Saudi King Abdullah, an ally. But he added: "He knows our position loud and clear."
The president said the U.S. economy is strong, though he acknowledged that the housing crisis has become a "headwind." He said administration officials are working on the issue, but he is wary of bailing out lenders.
"We shouldn't say, 'OK, you made a lousy loan so we're going to go ahead and subsidize you.'"
Asked about the 2008 election, Mr. Bush steered himself back out of commenting on politics. "I practiced some punditry in the past. I'm not going to any further."
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