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US Lawmakers Urge Caution on Intelligence Report on Iran

Some lawmakers in the U.S. Congress continue to caution that the recent U.S. intelligence report on Iran's nuclear program does not support a conclusion that Iran has given up its ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

In the two weeks since the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was issued, Brad Sherman has been busy issuing statements drawing attention to what says are two important facts.

First, says the California Democrat, the 3,000 centrifuges at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility can provide enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the middle of the next decade.

Second, suspension of weapons development, occurring according to the intelligence report in 2003, does not mean Iran ceased efforts to develop fissile material and will not decide at some point to resume.

Joined by four other House lawmakers, Sherman used a news conference to drive home these points, asserting the media has paid too much attention to Iran's suspension, and not enough on remaining risks posed by Iranian ambitions.

"It is going to take them several years to get the fissile material. It does them no harm to wait. So they get a huge diplomatic, press and public relations advantage by suspending that program and it does not delay their nuclear efforts by a single day," he said.

Republican Representative Ed Royce agrees with Sherman's assertion that media reporting has been dominated by the suspension issue. "I would argue that the interpretation that we are seeing reported, in magazines like TIME magazine, is misrepresenting the actual facts on the ground in Iran and the development of their program as they increasingly develop the inventory of enriched uranium and plutonium that they need for their program," he said.

Congressman Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee frames the issue in terms of the overall level of confidence Congress has in intelligence reporting. "Maybe we ought to encourage the [intelligence] community to be a little bit more cautious about making definitive statements to us, as policy makers, to the American people, and to the world about what we do and don't know and what we believe about some of the threats that we face as a nation," he said.

Hoekstra says there must be a general improvement in U.S. intelligence-gathering, particularly human methods as opposed to technical intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Citing the large gap between the reported 2003 Iranian suspension and the issuing of the latest intelligence finding, Democratic Congresswoman Diane Watson suggests that the U.S. intelligence system has failed. "I would say to all of us that we must move with caution. We must demand better and more effective intelligence, and we the policy makers must know as much as we can so we can frame our foreign policy where the rest of our European allies and those few that we have in the Middle East can support us. We have lost a great deal of our credibility," she said.

This week, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed to the U.S. report as proof that President Bush was wrong in his assertions about Iranian nuclear weapons efforts. On Wednesday, President Bush called Iran a danger and repeated his call for it to explain why it had a nuclear weapons program in the first place.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had this response when asked about the Iranian leader's suggestion that the report could be a step forward toward improvements in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. "I just think that is fanciful thinking on his part, [by] (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. I refer you to Secretary Gates' comment on Saturday. If they are now saying that our intelligence report is correct, this was like the first time in history that Iran has said that is true, and if that is the case, do they also agree that they are enriching uranium for a possible nuclear weapon in the future? Are they also testing these ballistic missiles which would be a delivery system for a future nuclear weapon?," she said.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Ike Skelton, has said while the finding that Iran suspended weapons efforts in 2003 is encouraging and a sign international pressure may have been an important factor, Iran still has the capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, and the United States must remain vigilant.

Ongoing controversy over the Iran intelligence report makes it certain that Democratic-led committees are likely to hold hearings in the new congressional session that begins in January about the confidence of U.S. intelligence officials in their findings about Iran's nuclear program.