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Bush told Iran may have halted atom work

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush was told in August that Iran may have suspended its nuclear weapons programme, the White House said on Wednesday, a day after Bush said he was not given a full report on the issue.

A new intelligence estimate released on Monday said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in the fall of 2003, raising questions about whether the president was aware of that when he increased his rhetoric against Tehran.

Bush for months has called Iran a threat and in October raised the spectre of World War Three if it acquired a nuclear weapon.

Some Democrats seized on this week’s intelligence report to suggest Bush took an aggressive stance against Iran even though he knew that U.S. intelligence had a different picture of the threat posed by Tehran.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Bush said he was informed of the intelligence report last week, but said U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell told him in August there was new information on Iran.

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“He didn’t tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyse,” Bush said.

On Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said McConnell told Bush in August that Iran may have suspended its nuclear weapons programme and that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment on Iran.

McConnell told the president that new information had been obtained on Iran just as the intelligence agencies were about to finalize the report and that they would not be able to meet a congressional deadline for the estimate, she said.

“He (McConnell) said that if the new information turns out to be true, what we thought we knew for sure is right. Iran does in fact have a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may be suspended,” Perino said.

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McConnell advised the president that it would take more time to vet the information and determine its validity, she said. She was responding to questions about what the spy chief told Bush in August.

After the new National Intelligence Estimate was released, critics accused Bush of hyping the threat from Iran, and some suggested similarities with the administration’s much-criticised handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

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One of the main justifications for the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq was that it had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.

Bush and his administration have for months been trying to increase international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme through more U.N. Security Council sanctions and by ratcheting up the rhetoric. Washington also accuses Iran of meddling in Iraq, which Tehran denies.

“It’s exactly what he did in the run-up to the war in Iraq in consistently exaggerating intelligence suggesting that Iraq had WMD, while failing to tell the American people about intelligence concluding that it did not,” Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat and presidential hopeful, said on Tuesday.

Bush said the intelligence report had not changed his mind about Iran. He emphasized that view on Wednesday with a statement as he arrived for an event in Omaha, Nebraska.

“It is clear from the latest NIE that the Iranian government has more to explain about its nuclear intentions and past actions,” Bush said.

“The Iranians have a strategic choice to make, they can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities and fully accept the longstanding offer to suspend their enrichment program and come to the table and negotiate, or they can continue on a path of isolation that is not in the best interest of the Iranian people,” he said.

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