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US Defense Chief Still Considers Iran a Threat, Despite New Intelligence Estimate 


The U.S. secretary of defense says he still believes Iran is trying to "foment instability and chaos" in the Middle East, despite the recent reversal of U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Beirut.

Speaking at a regional security conference in the Gulf nation of Bahrain, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he continues to see Iran as a threat to U.S. interests and to the interests of all countries in the Middle East.

Gates stated, "although our nations have differing perspectives and histories, we nonetheless share a deep concern about Iran's current course. While we must keep our options open, the United States and the international community must continue - and intensify - our economic, financial, and diplomatic pressures on Iran to suspend enrichment and agree to verifiable arrangements that can prevent that country from resuming its nuclear weapons program at a moment's notice - at the whim of its most militant leaders."

Gates said he still believes Iran is pursuing what he called "destabilizing foreign policies" and is trying to "foment instability and chaos" in the Middle East, even though U.S. intelligence agencies recently concluded, in a National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran stopped trying to build nuclear weapons four years ago.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said earlier this week that the U.S. report is "a victory" for Iran against world powers. He also said Iran will not retreat "one step" in its pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology.

In Tehran on Saturday, Iran's foreign minister denied the report's claim that Iran was, until 2003, trying to develop nuclear weapons.

In his speech, Gates challenged Tehran to accept other U.S. assessments, including the belief by U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran has funded and trained militia groups in Iraq, funneled weapons to Iraq and Afghanistan, and supported terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. "In reality, you cannot pick and choose only the conclusions you like of this National Intelligence Estimate," he said.

Gates acknowledged that the new U.S. intelligence report has made it harder to push for more international sanctions against Iran to pressure it into abandoning its uranium enrichment program. He went on to say, "the estimate clearly has come at an awkward time. It has annoyed a number of our good friends. It has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we are trying to accomplish."

The remarks by Gates, and earlier ones made by President Bush, have fueled skepticism in the Middle East about the Bush administration's policies in the region.

Political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut says she views the new intelligence report on Iran as connected to recent shifts in U.S. tactics in dealing also with Syria and Lebanon.

Saad-Ghorayeb stated "if we also look at the NIE report with regards to Iran, and the shelving -- perhaps temporarily -- of the military option, yes I think we are witnessing perhaps a good injection of realism in the Bush administration now. I'm not at all over-optimistic about that, however. I think this is just a temporary change in tactics for now. It's by no means a change in US strategy on how to deal with the region in terms of US objectives for the region."

Iran's foreign minister was originally scheduled to attend the Bahrain conference where Gates spoke, but the Iranian delegation canceled at the last minute without explanation

Iran says it has filed a formal diplomatic protest over the use of espionage in preparing the U.S. intelligence report.

President Bush has indicated that a new source of information prompted the revision of U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program, but he did not elaborate. News reports in the U.S. have said the information included intercepted communications between Iranian military commanders.

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